Gridlock, and regrouping

As the clock neared 7 p.m. Eastern time on Nov. 7, CNN anchors Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff could hardly contain themselves. Voting in Florida, the most important of several "battleground" states, was about to end. According to pre-election conventional wisdom, the 2000 presidential election would be determined by the outcomes in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Sunshine State's 25 Electoral College votes were thought to be the crown jewels in this contest.

About 50 minutes later, the television networks "called" the state for Al Gore. By 9:30 p.m., however, they were withdrawing Florida from the Democratic candidate's tally. Was the exit-poll data faulty? Or was the problem simply those Panhandle Floridians living in the Central time zone who were still voting when the networks gave the state to Gore?

Competitive, profit-driven "pack journalism" reared its head again some five hours later. Just before 2:30 a.m., the networks began declaring George Bush the next president of the United States on the basis of his reported lead of 50,000 votes in Florida. An hour later, the vice president received a phone call to the effect that he had closed the deficit to 6,000 votes, and so he phoned the Texas governor to retract an earlier admission of defeat.

Those 25 Florida electoral votes became the epicenter of the postelection controversy, leaving both candidates short of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.

Florida's electorate has gotten sucked into the analytical swamp of recounts, discarded ballots, apparent miscast votes, faulty registration lists and alleged voter intimidation. A year ago, few if any observers thought the state would even be in play. After all, the likely Republican candidate would be the sibling of Florida's generally popular Republican governor in a state that had voted GOP in nine of the 12 previous presidential elections.

Once Gore's brief Florida "win" was rescinded, Democrats, alternately angry and whiny, accused Ralph Nader of ruining the election and called Green Party voters "Nader's Traitors." In one fell swoop, the greatly admired longtime consumer advocate had become "Darth Nader."

But the blame isn't so limited. Gore revealed himself to be Tennessee's not-so-favorite son. His plight in his home state was made difficult by the growth of a solid Republican South, and his failure to carry Tennessee denied him 11 Electoral College votes that would have put him over the top with a total of 271 -- without Florida. Gore's embarrassing Tennessee defeat suggests that he might have campaigned a bit more in a state that he and Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996.

Gore's team kept Clinton on the sidelines throughout the campaign, allowing him only a last-minute foray into Hollywood and Arkansas. Clinton's negatives in Arkansas existed long before his presidential troubles, yet he had won five of six statewide races as well as its six Electoral College votes in each of his presidential campaigns.

Which brings us back to Florida, where the original statewide count left Gore trailing Bush by fewer than 2,000 out of almost 6 million votes. Given the problems in Palm Beach County -- 19,000 ballots tossed out, a few thousand votes mistakenly cast for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan in an county where Gore received 62 percent of the vote -- the real spoiler for the Democrats was not Ralph Nader but the punch-hole "butterfly ballot."

Still, Gore's hopes in the state rested upon minorities and seniors. Last spring, opponents of One Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to end affirmative action in public university admissions and state contracting, vowed to get out the November vote. And they did. Of the approximately 650,000 additional Florida votes this year compared to 1996, more than 55 percent were cast by African Americans. Black voters last Tuesday comprised 15 percent of Florida's turnout, compared to 10 percent in 1996. (The Hispanic vote, however, declined from 12 percent last time to 11 percent this year.)

Gore received 93 percent of black votes, compared to 86 percent for Clinton in the previous election. Had Gore duplicated Clinton's numbers, the vice president would have received 330,000 fewer votes across the state, and Gore would have had no need to telephone his opponent a second time to say, in effect, "About our earlier conversation, I take it back."

The substantial African-American increase reduced white voters to 73 percent of statewide turnout, down 3 percentage points from 1996. Gore's portion of the white vote fell similarly, from the 43 percent that Clinton received to the 40 percent Gore won this year.

Turnout by gender indicates that women were 54 percent of the Florida electorate in 2000, up 2 percentage points from 1996. Gore won 53 percent of women's votes, while President Clinton earlier received 54 percent. Forty-one percent of men voted for Clinton in 1996, while 42 percent of them voted Gore in 2000.

The white "gender gap" in the state, however, tells a different story. Gore and Clinton ran fairly even among white males. These voters comprised 47 percent of the white vote in 2000 and 48 percent in 1996, giving 35 percent to Gore and 36 percent to Clinton. And while neither Democratic candidate carried the white female vote, Gore did less well, receiving 44 percent of this group compared to 49 percent for Clinton in 1996.

If African-American voters kept Al Gore in the ball game, so to speak, seniors were supposed to secure his win. Voters age 65 and older were 21 percent and 20 percent, respectively, of Florida's 1996 and 2000 electorate. Clinton won this vote by 11 points, receiving 55 percent to Bob Dole and Ross Perot's combined 44 percent. Gore didn't only fare less well among these voters; he lost them to Bush, 46 percent to 52 percent.

Had the Democrat won this group by 6 points -- not unreasonable, given voting history -- he would have received about 72,400 more votes. Had he just broken even with Bush, he would have won 36,200 more votes. Either way, Gore would have carried Florida by a slim but greater margin than either candidate will now see, regardless of the outcome.

When it came to seniors, Gore banked on a traditional appeal: Republicans threaten Social Security. Hence the ads raising questions about Bush's proposal allowing for investment of a portion of individual contributions while retaining benefits for current recipients. The strategy did not shore up Democratic support among seniors as it has in the past. (Conversely, Bush's plan did not resonate as expected among Florida's voters age 18-29, more than half of whom went for Gore.)

Why did Gore lose a majority of Florida's elderly voters? Part of the answer lies, perhaps, in changing demographics. According to Berry College marketing professor Carolyn Folkman Curasi, the 65-and-over age segment of the population has the second-highest income per capita of any age group. It possesses a significant portion of both the country's discretionary income and its financial assets. Social class and gender notwithstanding, a smaller percentage of retirees today depend solely (even predominantly) upon Social Security payments. More people have earnings from job-related retirement programs and various investment plans.

Call them Eisenhower-era seniors. They may have been born just before or during the Great Depression and they certainly grew up during World War II, but they did not generally come to political age with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. FDR-era seniors likely pride themselves on "never having voted for a Republican in my life" because "FDR saved the working man." With each election cycle, there are smaller numbers of FDR-era seniors.

Current seniors, however, are concerned about the costs of prescription drugs, and for good reason. A 1999 report issued by Florida Congresswoman Karen Thurman of Gainesville indicates that 75 percent of Medicare beneficiaries lack dependable private-sector prescription-drug coverage. This finding comes on the heels of a 1998 Congressional Budget Office study showing that those without insurance coverage pay the highest price for brand-name drugs. Moreover, a 1999 Federal Trade Commission report disclosed drug manufacturers using a "two-tiered pricing structure" under which they "charge higher prices to the uninsured."

Prescription-drug benefits were an issue in the 2000 campaign. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of reasoned discussion about either candidate's plan following Gore's comment about his dog's arthritis medicine costing less than a similar drug prescribed for his mother-in-law.

After examining both the Gore proposal to include such benefits under Medicare and Bush's to offer incentives for the private-sector to provide them, retired pressman Bob Hall said, "I prefer Gore's approach because it's comprehensive and safer. But the Democrats haven't done anything about this before. Why should we think they will now?"

Democrats may well have to rethink their relationship to seniors if the Florida election offers a glimpse of future trends. Florida Democrats, meanwhile, might reconsider their views on "felon disenfranchisement" if they are at all attentive to the important role that African-American voters played in giving Gore a chance. Some 400,000 Florida residents are presently prohibited from voting despite having completed their sentences. Given what is known about voting patterns, one could argue that the class- and race-based effects of this practice (by no means universal throughout the 50 states) cost Gore the presidency.

Greens, meanwhile, have an opening to seek out minority, women and labor support in forming a presence to the left of the Democratic Party. Of course, minor parties face numerous obstacles: restrictive ballot access, single-member legislative districts, "winner-take-all" elective offices, media inattention, limited finances. The faithful have to shift their focus from presidential campaigning that consumes time, people and money to organization building, running candidates in smaller races and social-movement mobilizing. Green Party success will be measured by its ability to be both in the streets and in the suites.

A switch of several thousand votes in a couple of states in 1976 would have given Gerald Ford the Electoral College even though he would have still lost the direct vote. As Ford said to ABC's Sam Donaldson asking if confused statements he made during the 1976 debates were responsible for his defeat: "We'll never know that now, will we, Sam?"

Michael Hoover teaches political science at Seminole Community College.

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