Politics

Revisiting Florida 2000 and the Butterfly Effect

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We’re still in a post-primary lull before the campaign starts to heat up — and before Donald J. Trump goes on trial. Here are a few quick notes to end the week.

Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator, died this week at 82. He was Al Gore’s vice-presidential nominee in 2000, when the Gore-Lieberman ticket came less than 600 Florida votes away from winning the White House.

We’ll never know what would have happened if the Supreme Court had allowed the recount to continue. But I don’t think it’s always appreciated that we probably do know that Mr. Gore would have won Florida, and therefore the presidency, if it weren’t for the infamous “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach County.

If you don’t remember — it has been a while — the butterfly ballot was very unusual. Candidates were listed on both sides of the ballot, and voters cast a ballot by punching a corresponding hole in the middle. What made it so unusual was that the ordering of the candidates on the ballot didn’t have the same logic as the corresponding punch hole: George W. Bush and Mr. Gore were the first two candidates listed on the left-hand side, but they corresponded to the first and third hole on the punch. The second punch corresponded with the first candidate on the right-hand side of the ballot: the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, running as a Reform Party candidate.

After the election, many voters from Palm Beach claimed they had inadvertently voted for Mr. Buchanan when they meant to vote for Mr. Gore. This is clear in the data. Mr. Buchanan fared far better in Palm Beach County than he did on the other side of the county line. Indeed, Mr. Buchanan fared far better in Palm Beach County than any politically or demographically comparable area in the country.

You can see this pattern quite clearly in this map, courtesy of Matthew C. Isbell, a Democratic data strategist and consultant:

Mr. Buchanan also fared much better among Election Day voters — who used the butterfly ballot — than among absentee voters, who did not, a pattern not seen elsewhere in the state. Mr. Buchanan’s support was also concentrated in Democratic areas, even though he was a very conservative candidate.

As far as the data goes, the case is a slam dunk: At least 2,000 voters who meant to vote for Gore-Lieberman ended up voting for Mr. Buchanan. All else being equal, that would have been enough to decide the election.

Last week, I wrote that there were a few hints that maybe, just maybe, President Biden’s numbers had inched up after the State of the Union.

Maybe not. It has gotten harder to see signs of any Biden bump. Taken together, new polls from Fox, CNBC and Quinnipiac suggested that the presidential race was essentially unchanged, with Mr. Trump still holding a narrow lead nationwide. The president’s approval rating doesn’t seem discernibly higher, either.

As I wrote last week, that’s not necessarily unexpected, nor is it terrible news for Mr. Biden. The State of the Union doesn’t usually make much of a difference. And there’s a case the speech was still helpful to him by quieting the concerns of elite Democrats about his ability to run a vigorous campaign.

That said, this is really not just about the State of the Union. Many of the ingredients for a possible Biden comeback have been coming into place over the last few months, from improving consumer sentiment to the sense of finality that the matchup would be Biden vs. Trump. There are many ways a Biden comeback could unfold, but one way involved these favorable conditions translating into gains in the polls. The end of the primary season and the State of the Union were plausible opportunities for Mr. Biden to begin to realize these gains. It hasn’t happened yet.

The next opportunity: the scheduled April 15 trial of Donald J. Trump on charges related to paying hush money to a porn star.

Florida 2000 is a reminder that every vote will count, but as I wrote earlier this week, many less engaged voters will undoubtedly choose to sit out this election. That led several of you to ask whether there were any early clues about turnout this fall. Judy Pelowski, for instance, asked:

It seems to me voter turnout will be the biggest factor in who wins the election this year. With the amount of dissatisfaction with the candidates this year, do you have any indications people will not show up? If so, what are the probabilities for low turnout?

It’s still a little early to say much about the eventual turnout, but every quick-and-easy early indicator suggests the turnout may be lower than it was four years ago. To take a few examples:

  • The turnout numbers in the primaries and the 2022 midterms were lower than the corresponding figures from four years before.

  • Fewer voters like the candidates than four years ago, the polling shows.

  • Our early polling finds a smaller proportion of voters saying they’re “almost certain to vote” than at this stage four years ago.

Now, the turnout in 2020 was very high for this era, so the turnout in November can drop and still be quite high. But at this early stage, it’s hard to make a good case for turnout to match 2020.

The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman dug in to newly digitized archives to highlight one Cook analysis of a pivotal House race from every election year from 1984 to 2002.

At just one or two paragraphs per election, it’s pretty quick and easy to digest, and it’s also a good test to see if you’re a true political junkie. Perhaps best of all: One of the highlights happens to be from Mr. Wasserman’s childhood home district (at the time, New Jersey’s 12th District), and consequently features his own personal archive of campaign material from the 1998 campaign.

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