How Florida Democrats torpedoed Gore

If the vice president had locked up his party's traditional base in the Sunshine State, the election wouldn't be tied up in the courts.

Published November 28, 2000 12:18AM (EST)

Not all computer errors involve vote counts in Florida. Writing in Funny Times, Richard Lederer tells about a computer glitch that forced the publisher of an economics report to issue an apology to subscribers. "Instead of the figures on the sales of soybeans to foreign countries," the sheepish publisher explained, the computer printed out "the chest measurements of the Female Wrestlers Association."

Hazard your own guess as to why the soybean statistician had FWA chest measurements programmed into the computer, but the lesson here is that it's not only important to get your statistics right, but also to get the right statistics. In the aftermath of this election, the media and political pros have zeroed in on one set of election figures, while totally ignoring another set that may be even more revealing about the presidential race. The national focus, of course, has been on the few-hundred-vote difference between Gore and Bush -- a thin divide that was breathlessly termed a "crisis" for our democracy by assorted pipe-smoking pundits. Yet these same pundits didn't give a puff about a far wider electoral divide that I think poses an actual crisis for our democracy: the more than 100 million votes that went astray on Election Day.

These votes weren't "lost" to misaligned butterfly ballots, pregnant chads or some conniving election official who deposited them in a closet. Rather, these were the uncast ballots of almost half of the American electorate, who chose not to vote this year largely because they feel they've been cast out of the process by a vacuous, cynical and elitist political system that no longer addresses their needs and aspirations.

These mostly are middle- and low-income folks, people making less than $50,000 a year. While they make up some 80 percent of the U.S. population, exit polls on Nov. 7 found that for the first time they've fallen to less than half of the voting population. As the Clinton-Gore-Lieberman Democrats have jerked the party out from under this core populist constituency, pursuing the money and adopting the policies of the corporate and investor elite, the core constituency of the party has -- big surprise -- steadily dropped away. In 1992, the under-$50,000 crowd made up 63 percent of voters. In 1996, after Clinton and Gore had relentlessly and very publicly pushed NAFTA, the WTO and other Wall Street policies for four years, the under-$50,000 crowd dropped to 52 percent of voters. After four more years of income stagnation and decline for these families under the regime of the Clinton-Gore "New Democrats," the under-$50,000 crowd dropped this year to only 47 percent of voters.

At the same time, those who are prospering under the Wall Street boom, cheered on by the policies of both the Republican and Democratic leadership, have become ever more enthusiastic voters. In 1996, voters with incomes above $100,000 (about 3 percent of the population), made up 9 percent of the turnout; this year, they were 15 percent of the turnout.

This rising income skew among voters causes both parties to push more policies that favor the affluent minority, which causes an even greater turn-off for the majority, which causes ... well, you can see the downward spiral we're in. This is especially damaging to Democrats, since the non-voters are their natural constituency. This constituency feels discarded, not only by the Democrats, but by the whole process.

What a dismal, disheartening, dismaying campaign this had to be for them. Gore and Bush spent less time with working-class folks than they did posturing for the cameras with elementary school kids, day after day squishing their broad boomer bottoms into tiny classroom chairs to get their pictures taken while reading to the tykes. Were they running for president of the United States or president of the school board?

And so it went, a silly non-campaign that treated voters as consumers of phony political events designed and test-marketed to entertain and distract attention from anything real. Gore planted that Big Wet Kiss on Tipper at the Democratic Convention, wowing the media, so Bush responded by going on "Oprah" and planting a smack on her cheek. Bush traded jokes with Jay Leno, so Gore went on "Regis" and hypnotized a chicken -- Ha! Top that, Bush boy!

Meanwhile, no talk of a living wage, of renegotiating NAFTA to stop its job-busting impacts across the country, of the 100 farmers being forced out of business each day, of universal healthcare coverage or of other issues that might cause the majority's ears and hearts to perk up. Even when Gore went skittering across the country in August on a widely ballyhooed "Working Families Tour," he had the Clinton administration's favorite Wall Streeter, Robert Rubin, by his side, sending a stage wink to the corporate powers, assuring them that all his quasi-populist posturing was only rhetoric -- not to worry, Rubin still has a grip on policy.

It's no surprise then that Thomas Patterson, director of Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project, reports that throughout the election year, even among those who voted, his weekly surveys consistently found that more than 60 percent agreed, "Politics in America is generally pretty disgusting." In a New York Times op-ed piece, Patterson writes, "There was no week in which more Americans thought the campaign had been exciting rather than boring. Even in the final week, the margin in favor of boring was 48 percent to 28 percent." In only a fourth of the weeks did people find the presidential campaign informative, and in two-thirds of the weeks people found it "discouraging."

The media pontificates about whether the new president can be considered "legitimate" after the counts, recounts, non-counts and court cases in Florida. But there is a deeper question of legitimacy than that posed by a few hundred votes. Neither Bush nor Gore can claim to be the people's choice, for the only clear finding of this election is that Americans didn't want either of them. The close popular and electoral votes were not a reflection of evenly divided support, but of which guy people would vote to throw off the island first. Both "won" this negative contest. Let's do the math:

  • 52 percent of eligible voters either did not vote or voted for third-party candidates.

  • Among the 48 percent of Americans who cast ballots for Bush or Gore, there was an even split, giving each roughly 24 percent of eligible voters.

  • But wait -- a good half of these voters were not actually choosing the candidate they checked on their ballots, but rather voting against the other guy.

    This means that neither Bush nor Gore could muster the support of more than 12 percent of the electorate. This is the real crisis for our democracy.

    How is the Democratic Party establishment dealing with this crisis of legitimacy and its own declining numbers? By blaming Ralph Nader. Partisans wail that Nader denied Gore the few hundred votes he needed to prevail on election night. Indeed, Nader polled some 95,000 votes in Florida, which prompted New York socialite and Hillary Clinton moneyman Harry Evans to blurt angrily, "I want to kill Ralph Nader."

    Hold your horses, please. Ralph's not the message -- he's only the messenger. Again, the politicos and pundits are ignoring another set of election statistics in Florida that are way more revealing about the core weakness of the corporate Democrats. I'm grateful to Tim Wise, a Nashville writer and activist who dug into the Florida tallies and exit polls to find some stunning results that refute the "Ralph did it" assault. Wise's full report will appear in a forthcoming issue of Z magazine, but the essence of it is that Gore was the problem, not Nader. Start with two constituent groups that Democratic nominees usually win in the Sunshine State:

    1) Seniors. By a 51-47 percent margin, Gore lost the over-65 vote in Florida. Bush got 67,000 more senior votes than Gore did, even after all the Democratic scare talk about vanishing Social Security benefits. Had Gore simply broken even with this constituency, he would have won.

    2) White Women. This group typically votes Democratic in Florida, or splits evenly. Gore lost them to Bush by 53-44 percent. Had he gotten 50 percent of these votes, he'd have added 65,000 votes to his total -- plenty enough to have put the state in his column election night.

    Now it gets really ugly for the Gore campaign, for there are two other Florida constituencies that cost them more votes than Nader did. First, Democrats. Yes, Democrats! Nader only drew 24,000 Democrats to his cause, yet 308,000 Democrats voted for Bush. Hello. If Gore had taken even 1 percent of these Democrats from Bush, Nader's votes wouldn't have mattered. Second, liberals. Sheesh. Gore lost 191,000 self-described liberals to Bush, compared to less than 34,000 who voted for Nader.

    Why would Democrats and liberals vote for (gag) Bush? Some Democrats may have been so appalled by Clinton's personal behavior and Gore's fundraising escapades that they flipped all the way to Bush, while others found no defining economic difference between Gore and Bush, so they voted on the basis of George W.'s (false) claim to be the integrity candidate. Some liberals noted that Bush actually has proposed less of an increase in the Pentagon's already-bloated budget than Gore did, and some were so angered by the vice president's atrocious record of selling out working families, environmentalists and farmers that they wanted to give him the double-whammy of taking a vote from him and giving it to Bush. In any event, Gore failed to close the deal with these voters -- a fact that has nothing to do with Nader.

    There are plenty of other points that can be made about Gore's loss, including the fact that if he'd carried his own state of Tennessee (where Nader was not a factor), all of this would be moot. But the real need is for progressives (whether Gore-backers, Naderites or neither) to get beyond this presidential election and get down to the real business of building a long-term, grass-roots movement that taps into the latent power of more than 100 million discarded voters. If we succeed at that, we can produce a historic political realignment, creating both politics that people can be proud of and a country with a bright, democratic future.

  • By Jim Hightower

    Jim Hightower's most recent book is "Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush." He produces a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, and a syndicated daily radio commentary.

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    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    2000 Elections Al Gore Democratic Party George W. Bush