Verdi's Messa da Requiem on Monday, November 19, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Hall, presented by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus
Week of  9 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 13


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Zelnick's recount account
Partisan strategies in Florida's Bush-Gore election contest

By Brian Fitzgerald

It was a drama that kept Americans glued to their televisions and newspapers. For a while, it was treated as the news story of the century (albeit a short century). The presidential election controversy of 2000, however, has been relegated to the back burner of the public's consciousness, especially after the events of September 11.

  Robert Zelnick, acting chairman of COM's department of journalism. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

"People regard the election as having happened a long time ago now," says Robert Zelnick, acting chairman of COM's department of journalism. But those who want to relive one of the great stories of politics in recent years -- and get an inside view of the winning camp's strategy -- will want to read Zelnick's book Winning Florida: How the Bush Team Fought the Battle (Hoover Institution Press, 2001). Zelnick will talk about the book on Wednesday, November 14, at 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble's Level 5 Reading Room in Kenmore Square.

It seems as though it happened in another age, but a year ago the country was fixated on election recounts, lawsuits, and dimpled chads. The election over and the inauguration approaching, the country still didn't know who would be its next president, and the battle between George W. Bush's legal team and Al Gore's lawyers was getting nasty. To recap: on the evening of election day, November 7, 2000, the key state of Florida seemed to fall into the Gore column, sealing his victory. But news organizations soon put the state back into the "too close to call" category. Next the networks declared Bush the winner, prompting a concession phone call from Gore.

Zelnick's book begins with the election night recollections of Ben Ginsberg, the general counsel of the Bush campaign. Ginsberg was driving from the campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Capitol for the declaration of victory. "En route came the phone call from headquarters telling the motorcade that Florida was again 'too close to call' and that Gore had phoned Bush a second time, now to withdraw his concession," writes Zelnick. "Ginsberg abandoned the procession and headed back to Bush campaign headquarters to check the latest Florida figures. Bush still led by nearly 2,000 votes, this time with nearly everything counted that could be counted on election night." About 4:15 a.m. it became clear to him that there would be a recount. By 10 Ginsberg was on a plane to Tallahassee.
What followed was a media circus: controversial "butterfly" ballots that had allegedly duped thousands of Democrats into voting for Patrick Buchanan, demands for a revote, dueling lawsuits, Jesse Jackson organizing protest marches, machine vs. manual recounts, and definitions of all types of chads -- from "pregnant" to "swinging door" to "hanging."

Zelnick, who is also a COM journalism professor and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, interviewed such crucial players on the Bush legal team as former Secretary of State James Baker, Theodore Olsen, George Terwiliger, and Bob Zoellick. He also talked with Tom Feeney, speaker of the Florida House, and John McKay, president of the Florida Senate.

The vote that counted
Of course, Bush eventually won the presidency -- the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ended the contest. But one questionable tactic that Zelnick brings up was the Bush team's strategy of not trying to balance Gore's selective recounts with selective recounts of its own. "They didn't launch their own recounts for a couple of reasons," says Zelnick. "First, their interest was in sustaining the results of the election and the initial machine recount. Their position was, 'It's over. Let's stop counting. Let's go home.' They also felt it would be bad politics to let the Gore team define the issue on which the election turned -- machine vs. manual recounts."

What about agreeing to a statewide manual recount? Election results are rarely reversed by such recounts. In fact, leads are usually stretched. Zelnick says he discovered while writing the book that the Bush team was nervous about a statewide recount, despite litigation possibilities if he lost. If Bush had fallen behind Gore by November 14, when state law stipulated that the recounting was supposed to stop, Bush's advisors were afraid that the media would turn against him. "Public opinion would also have turned against him," says Zelnick. "He would have been looked at as the guy who wouldn't accept defeat. People would have said, 'He lost the popular vote, he lost the electoral vote in Florida, and he's still trying to fight it in the courts.' "

Zelnick says that the Palm Beach County recount was a turning point for the Bush legal team. Gore had gained 567 votes in Broward County -- if he had matched that in Palm Beach, where he gained only 176 votes, the Bush lead would have evaporated.

Zelnick also says that the federal deadline of December 12 for naming electors was significant, but not necessarily a "drop-dead date." It meant just that electors named before that date couldn't be challenged when Congress counted votes to name the next president. Electors can be chosen after that date, but Congress doesn't have to accept them. He points out that it was David Boies, Gore's lead lawyer, who solidified the December 12 date in the first Supreme Court case. "On November 8, December 12 seemed light years away, but once they got into the business of litigating and counting and interrupting and litigating some more, it proved to be a tenacious deadline that eventually beat them," says Zelnick. "But they really have themselves to blame, because the Electoral College didn't meet until the 18th of December. And in the Kennedy-Nixon election in 1960, they allowed votes to be added until the Senate's formal counting in early January."
On September 26, 2001, it was announced that a media review of uncounted Florida ballots was being delayed indefinitely because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. A group of news organizations had planned to release its results in late September, but the events earlier in the month had consumed the efforts of the participating computer data analysts, editors, and reporters.

At this point, would there be much of an outcry if the "consortium count" found Gore in the lead? "It's hard to say," says Zelnick. "It depends on the counting rules and if the consortium count presented a very clear and definitive picture of who should have won. But I think that the American people have moved beyond this, and right from inauguration day George W. Bush moved beyond it with a very ambitious legislative program. He has been an active and assertive president, and has been made more so by the events of September 11."

At present, Bush's approval rating is 90 percent, but that can scarcely be expected to continue to be the case in the future. "People's views of Bush may change," says Zelnick. "If Afghanistan doesn't work out the way we want it to, or if the economy goes further south than it's expected to -- lots of things can undermine his popularity. But for several months, Bush has been commander-in-chief, and Gore had the courtesy and good sense to grow a beard and a belly in privacy while the Bush presidency took hold."


9 November 2001
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