The Republic of Chad

Eight years ago this month, all eyes were laser-focused on Florida, where a recount of votes in the presidential race would determine George W. Bush’s fate—and the nation’s. For the many Texans who endured endless days and sleepless nights on their candidate’s behalf, the memories are still fresh. And yes, the victory is still sweet.
Mon December 1, 2008 6:00 am

There had been close presidential elections before—in 1960 John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by fewer than 120,000 votes—but in 2000 Texas governor George W. Bush did something that no one had done since the Benjamin Harrison—Grover Cleveland race of 1888: He lost the popular vote, to Vice President Al Gore, but won the electoral college, to become the forty-third president of the United States.

The election centered primarily on domestic issues: taxes, the budget surplus, Medicare, Social Security (remember Gore’s “lockbox”?). Yet after eight years in office, Bill Clinton had damaged his presidency—and the candidacy of his vice president—with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bush, vowing to “restore dignity and honor” to the White House, appealed to voters turned off by Clinton’s personal excesses.

On Election Day, November 7, the race was extremely close. Of the battleground states, Florida was a particular target for the Republicans. Though Clinton had carried it in 1996, four years later, Bush’s younger brother Jeb was the governor, and the family joked that it would be a quiet Thanksgiving if he couldn’t deliver its 25 electoral votes. But before the polls had even closed, the television networks gave Florida to Gore. A few hours later, they reversed course and gave it to Bush. Then they backpedaled completely and left the campaigns—and the nation—unsure of the endgame.

In the ensuing saga of the recount, the country learned about chads (pregnant, dimpled, and hanging), butterfly ballots, and the discrete charms of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened—another unprecedented twist—and sealed the victory for Bush. History hung on a mere 537 votes.

When Bush gave his first address as president-elect, on December 13, the nation had no idea of what lay ahead: September 11, Katrina, the global economic meltdown. Very few Americans had ever heard of Al Qaeda, let alone Osama bin Laden. Eight years later, the world is a very different place indeed—but the memories of those 36 days loom large in the minds of the Texans who lived them.

‘We Are Headed for a Great Night.’ ”

On Election Day, the poll numbers were tight, but some bad news had hit the previous Thursday: The media reported that the governor had been arrested in 1976 for DUI. No one knew how that would affect the outcome of the race.

JOE ALLBAUGH served as Bush’s campaign manager in 2000 and was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2001 to 2003. He is the president and CEO of the Allbaugh International Group, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. You work an entire campaign for Election Day. You show up early to make sure that the apparatus you’ve put in place is functioning, whether it’s poll watchers or phone banks or drivers to get out the vote. It’s checking with your team members all day long.

MATTHEW DOWD was a senior strategist for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and the chief strategist for the 2004 campaign. He is a founding partner of ViaNovo, an Austin-based branding firm. I played golf that morning at Circle C in Austin with Dan Bartlett and some other folks. I had golfed on Election Day when I worked on Democratic campaigns, and it had become a tradition. It started to rain and then it got sunny and then it started to rain again. I thought, “Is this a harbinger of tonight? You think it’s clear, but it’s not?”

DAN BARTLETT, a senior spokesman for the 2000 campaign, served as White House communications director from 2003 to 2005 and counselor to the president from 2005 to 2007. He is a senior strategist with Public Strategies, an Austin-based consulting firm. Neither of us shot that well, but it was good to get a break from all of the nervousness.

MINDY TUCKER FLETCHER was Bush’s national press secretary in 2000. She lives in San Diego, California. On Election Day I felt helpless. As a press person, there wasn’t much to do, though it’s not that way anymore because of these massive turnout operations. So I slept in and went to the office late.

LINDA EDWARDS GOCKEL was Governor Bush’s communications director in 2000. She is a consultant with Vollmer Public Relations in Austin. I knew it was going to be close, but I felt good about it. How could you not? The governor was always so upbeat. Mindy had sent out a note to [the press team] the night before that said, “I know this was in the AP story today, but Karen [Hughes] wanted me to share this story with everyone. The governor asked her how she felt about things and whether she was nervous. She told him that she felt serene. She knows that we have run a good campaign, given it our absolute best, and now it is in the people’s hands. He said, ‘I agree.’ We are headed for a great night.”

DANNER BETHEL was a policy analyst for the 2000 campaign and the deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education from 2001 to 2003. He is a managing director at Public Strategies in Austin. The policy shop decided to have lunch at a bowling alley and take it all in. In the seventh frame, [future White House chief of staff] Josh Bolten got a page—we had pagers back then that displayed text—with the first exit polls. They were disheartening. We quickly wrapped up the bowling session and headed back to our headquarters, at 301 Congress. We were still cautiously optimistic, but the tone had totally changed.

DOWD: Because of the disclosure about Bush’s DUI arrest, we did some polls that we normally wouldn’t have done on Sunday and Monday and got numbers back that morning. We went from a three- or four-point lead in Florida to dead even. In Michigan we went from even to three or four points behind. And Ohio went from four or five up to one or two up. My sense was that we were going to have a long night.

BARTLETT: The types of

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