Democracy's Strangest Night

If the American republic and its elections last for 1,000 years, men may still say, "This was their weirdest hour."

Carter vs. Ford? A cakewalk. Nixon vs. Kennedy? Straightforward. Garfield vs. Hancock? OK, that was closer, but it was 1880. There weren't anchormen around to pass Florida back and forth between the candidates like a deli platter.

No, the US elections of 2000 may well go down as one of the strangest and most emotion-wrenching in the history of ballots. From flubbed projections to withdrawn concessions, from first lady-elects to the triumph of a deceased candidate, there were more twists and turns on the night of Nov. 7 than in a full year of "The West Wing".

Legal challenges could extend the uncertainty of the presidential race past the end of Florida's official recount. At time of writing, to paraphrase Dan Rather, everything remained shakier than cafeteria jello.

Or something like that.

"I feel like I've been on a rollercoaster since 7 o'clock today," said Bush supporter Grace Germany, standing outside the Texas Capitol at 3:30 a.m. Nov. 8. "Er, yesterday."

The Bush-Gore contest now seems certain to enter the record books as one of the two or three closest in the history of the nation, as measured by popular vote.

At time of writing the candidates were essentially dead even, percentagewise, with 48 percent of the vote each. Gore's vote total was marginally larger.

The only previous presidential election where both candidates received the same slice of votes was the 1880 contest between Republican James A. Garfield and Democrat Winfield S. Hancock. Both won 48.3 percent of votes cast. Garfield won handily in the Electoral College, however, as his votes were more concentrated in large states.

Of course, campaigns were different back then, in the sense that there really weren't any, at least by modern standards. Goodbye, gender gap - women couldn't vote. The total number of votes cast was roughly equal to the number cast this year in California.

The Nixon-Kennedy race is the gold standard for closeness in the modern era. JFK won 49.7 percent of the vote, while Nixon took 49.5 percent. The difference was about 100,000 votes out of some 70 million cast.

That Gore was on the verge of winning the popular vote while losing the electoral one was only one of Tuesday's ironies. Many pundits had warned of that very thing happening - but with the situation reversed.

For the candidates themselves, and their supporters, it was just one more surprise to put on the shelf in the toy shop of surprises that the election became.

"I've been in politics a very long time, but I don't think there's ever been a night like this one," said Gore campaign director William Daley to the crowd gathered at War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday.

For die-hards, the drama was excruciating.

In Nashville, the evening of election day started out slowly. Cher darted on-stage at the be-columned plaza to warm up the crowd. Mercifully, she did not sing her hit "Turn Back Time."

When the networks gave Gore Florida, hope surged through the crowd. When they took it back, heads began plopping into hands. It started to rain. By 2 a.m., when the networks gave Florida to Bush, the few remaining supporters were hugging each other like college seniors vowing to stay in touch. Top campaign officials began drifting into the crowd, and everyone knew the end was imminent.

Then a man walked to the front of the crowd and began working his way back. "Florida is still in play," he said. "Florida is still in play."

It wasn't quite Jesse Jackson intoning "keep hope alive," but it had the same effect. By the time the giant TV screens showed that the networks were indeed taking back Florida again, due to bad computer input or a mistaken statistical calculation or a rain of giant frogs that had bewitched everyone who works in network news simultaneously, life had returned.

"Recount! Recount!" the crowd chanted.

Much the opposite occurred in Austin, Texas. The number of people grew steadily throughout the night. The sea of red, white, and blue screamed with enthusiasm every time Bush won a state. Cowboy hats were swung with a whoop and a holler, bundled-up babies were raised towards the stage as if for a blessing, and everyone was saluting each other with the Texas governor's unique "W" three-finger salute.

And then they didn't win. Not yet at least, they hoped.

"I had to come check it out. But I had no idea I would be standing here for so long," said Donny Greenspan, an Austin native who showed up not so much because he supports Bush as because he wanted to have a front row at history's show.

Bush enthusiast Ms. Gemany's multi-colored pom-pom lay soggy by her side as she struggled to put her feelings into words. "Turmoil, I guess," she said. "I haven't seen anything like this since the 1960 election."

Neither has anyone else.

Staffers Andy Nelson in Nashville and Kris Axtman in Austin contributed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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