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The Political Climate of the 2000s: Bill Clinton's Impeachment and Iowa Caucus

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The year 2000 was the start of a new era and another caucus for Iowa. This year it was held between the two top candidates, Busch for the Republican Party and Al Gore for the Democratic Party. In this essay we will look into the national political climate of this year, the leading candidates’ political positions, the results of the caucuses, how the results were interpreted in the press, and the importance of the Iowa Caucus.

The national political climate of the year 2000 was interesting because it started like any other: presidential candidates trudging through the snow of Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet, the ending was an argument between lawyers and judges in the U.S. Supreme Court, discussing the constitutionality of recounting ballots in Florida. All the while in between those times the political climate was different than previous years. The rise of presidential campaigns discovered early year publicity but to their disappointment not many votes from the people. There was a congressional gridlock and political conventions as well as a change within the Clintons. The change with the Clintons was due to the president wrapping up his term while his wife prepared to become a senator from New York. There was a lingering national hangover from the 1999 political year, in which a standing president faced a Senate impeachment trial (Lilleston).

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The people of the year 2000 caucus towards the end were left with a powerful image and one the would continue on: the debate over the presidential election. Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the electoral vote and the presidency (Lilleston). By this time America had definitely learned what the electoral college really meant and about the phrase “butterfly ballot,” in terms about what might best be described as “chadmania.” The nation watched for week as Florida courtrooms were flooded with lawyers arguing back and forth. The people complained, which was a rarity given the time in modern politics. Tv ratings and web site readership didn’t lie to the extent of which people cared.

The early year publicity boomlets were held by John McCain and Bill Bradley, yet Bradley’s inability to even get a single primary would be something that would quickly in turn doom him. Bush and McCain were another story with Bush holding a hefty financial and party support over McCain would eventually swipe him under his feet (Lilleston). Although McCain beat Bush in New Hampshire and Michigan early, Bush won in South Carolina proclaiming what was stated previously. With the greater proportion at the beginning of the election calendar year it created huge gap between the end of the contested part of the primary season in early March, and the party conventions in late July and August. Due to this Americans found themselves tuning out, since there was little evidence available that showed they paid any more attention to the Democratic and Republican conventions.

People started to see a change in fall, as the presidential election came down to it and was tight. The two main heads were Gore and Bush both fighting for the top, but there was a change of guard for the third choice. The Reform Party battled with itself and split over two candidates, and the strongest third party choice turned out to be Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee (Lilleston). For Congress, it was just another year traffic jam affecting a whole network of intersecting streets over some major issues. The body proved itself unable to approve even routine appropriations bills and a rare 'lame duck' session had to be held. When it came to the November election, it had narrowed it down to the Republican House majority and produced a 50-50 split in the Senate. As President travelled the globe at a record pace, it led to many grumbling from congressional Republicans. And the original Whitewater investigation -- the Arkansas land deal inquiry that subsequently bloomed into an investigation of all sorts of related issues, including the affair that led to Clinton's impeachment -- came to an end (Lilleston). The president and First Lady would not face criminal charges for the land deal according to an independent counsel.

When looking back into previous caucuses it’s important to know your candidates on both sides. The main candidate from the Democratic Party was Al Gore. Al Gore was Vice President to Bill Clinton for eight years and clearly the favorite in the primary to win the Democratic nomination. Between Gore and Bill Bradley, a former U.S. senator from New Jersey, it was obvious that Gore had captured it easily, seeing off a challenge (Levy). On the side of the Republican Party, Bush faced a stiff challenge John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona; other candidates included businessman Steve Forbes, diplomat and conservative commentator Alan Keyes, U.S. senator Orrin Hatch, and conservative activist Gary Bauer. Bush ultimately prevailed after a strenuous fight, including an especially brutal effort by the Bush campaign in the South Carolina primary (Levy). Bush bested his challengers to cement his front-runner standing. Bush led the field for months, capturing the Ames straw poll in August and racking up the largest victory in a contested Republican Iowa caucus. Still, publisher Steve Forbes made the race tighter than expected, and commentator Alan Keyes won a surprising 14 percent for third (“Iowa Caucuses”). U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona bypassed Iowa.

Only one opponent, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, was still standing on caucus night. Health care proved a divisive issue — Bradley touted a progressive $65 billion plan to cover 95 percent of Americans, while Gore more modestly presented a $15 billion plan aimed at covering all children and one-third of the uninsured (“Iowa Caucuses”). On several additional issues, Bradley was seen as the more progressive choice to Gore (“Iowa Caucuses”). The vice president also suffered in some voters’ eyes because of his association with President Bill Clinton, whose second term was tainted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment vote. But in the end, Gore won handily on caucus night. Despite the continued economic growth that Gore attributed in his economic stewardship with Clinton in the early election campaign it had first seemed as if Bush would easily defeat Gore. This is because Gore appeared “wooden and dismissive” of Bush in the campaign’s debates and who was criticized repeatedly by the Bush campaign as an exaggerator (Levy). In late October, however, the gap in the polls between Bush and Gore narrowed dramatically.

However, on election night, no clear winner had emerged. Print and broadcast media cited often contradictory exit-polling numbers, and the races in Oregon and New Mexico would remain too close to call for some days. Ultimately, the contest focused on Florida, which we know from previous statements about the ongoing court case. Networks initially projected Gore the winner in Florida, but later they declared that Bush had opened an insurmountable lead. Gore called Bush to concede the election, but in the early hours of the following morning it became apparent that the Florida race was much closer than Gore’s staff had originally believed. Fewer than 600 votes separated the candidates, and that margin appeared to be narrowing (Levy). About 3:00 AM Gore called a stunned Bush to retract his concession.

Florida state election law required a mandatory statewide machine recount. By November 10th the machine recount was complete, and Bush’s lead stood at 327 votes out of six million cast (Levy). As court challenges were issued over the legality of hand recounts in select counties, news stories were filled with the uncertain vocabulary of the election judge. County officials tried to discern voter intent through a cloud of incompletely punched paper ballots and paper ballots that were dimpled, but not pierced, during the voting process, as well as “overvotes” (ballots that recorded multiple votes for the same office) and “undervotes” (ballots that recorded no vote for a given office) (Levy). Also at issue was the so-called butterfly ballot design used in Palm Beach county, which caused confusion among some Gore voters—prompting them to inadvertently cast their votes for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan, who received some twenty percent of his total votes statewide

By late November the Florida state canvassing board declared Bush the winner by 537 votes, but the election still was unresolved, as legal battles remained. Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court decided (4–3) to order a statewide manual recount of the approximately 45,000 undervotes—ballots that machines recorded as not clearly expressing a presidential vote—and accepted some previously uncertified results in both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, reducing Bush’s lead to a mere 154 votes (Levy). The Bush campaign quickly filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to delay the recounts until it could hear the case; a stay was issued by the court on December 9. Three days later, concluding (7–2) that a fair statewide recount could not be performed in time to meet the December 18 deadline for certifying the state’s electors, the court issued a controversial 5–4 decision to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s recount order, effectively awarding the presidency to Bush (Levy). By winning Florida, Bush narrowly won the electoral vote over Gore by 271 to 266—only 1 more than the required 270 (one Gore elector abstained). Gore, however, won the popular vote over Bush by some 500,000 votes—the first inversion of the electoral and popular vote since 1888 (Levy).

In order to get a clear understanding of how the press interpreted the results I took a firsthand common news source, The New York Times, and an article that came the following day of the election. Partly because polls had shown so many races to be very close, the networks say they had advised the analysts on their ''decision desks'' to be especially careful with the calls on the races. Also fresh in the minds of many was a race that was inaccurately called in 1996, a Senate contest in New Hampshire in which the networks declared the Democrat the winner, when in fact the victory went to the Republican, Robert C. Smith. Nobody wanted a repeat, said several analysts who worked for the networks on election night (Marks). While all the networks called the state for Mr. Gore between about 7:50 p.m. and 8 p.m., some now say they had misgivings. Fox executives said they made the projection reluctantly, because they had expected Bush to carry the state. ''Everybody thought V.N.S. had it wrong,'' said Marty Ryan, the executive producer of Fox News's election night coverage (Marks). This didn’t fit the preconceived idea they had on the winner for the election.

Other networks' operations had been less certain which way Florida might go. ''The polls had been all over the place,'' said a CNN executive, knowing at this point anything was possible (Marks). The Voter News Service, in a statement, said the polling on Tuesday gave Gore a small lead but no member, nor V.N.S., thought that it was enough to call the race with confidence.

However, when reports of actual vote from sample or model precincts came in they supported the survey results and allowed the race to be called (Marks). Yet, the networks’ had made a huge mistake to call Florida so early and were soon under fire from officials of the Bush campaign and some who analyze the news media.

Christopher Achen, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, worked as a consultant on Tuesday for ABC News in its decision unit, one of those assigned the job of examining close, prominent races (Marks). Mr. Achen said he advised against calling Florida for Gore, saying that ''it had a 10- to 15-percent chance of being wrong.'' But when other networks began calling the race, Mr. Achen said, the urgency built. ''At that point, we are under tremendous pressure,'' he said. ''It's, 'What's the matter with you guys? Why can't you call this?'(Marks). CNN, in the meantime, said, ''Because of problems in reporting results of the presidential race in Florida, CNN has initiated an immediate review of all procedures involved and has already begun consultation with the other news organizations.'' (Marks). With this in mind one can tell the amount of pressure the various networks were under to get results out quickly would lead to mistakes.

The main reason the Iowa Caucuses are important is because it is the first state in the US where a ballot is cast. Despite being tiny, atypical of the rest of the US, and providing about 1 per cent of the nation’s delegates, the state is the first indicator of whether a prospective presidential candidate’s support is holding up (Stone). The media interest generated by the timing of what would otherwise be a fairly insignificant part of the race to the White House means candidates can secure disproportionate positive coverage for a smaller amount of effort.

The early timing also means that candidates have more room to adjust their messages and programs in response to the results – giving the state disproportionate influence. Iowa is a sign of what lies ahead in the race. About half of the winners of the Iowa Caucus go on to win their party’s nomination for the presidency – meaning it isn’t a very good predictor of who will actually get the nomination (Stone). Where the race is a better predictor is showing who is likely to get absolutely nowhere. A campaign with no real support makes contact with the electorate in Iowa for the first time, and it often isn’t pretty. Since 1972 no Democratic of Republican candidate who finished worth than fourth place in the Iowa Caucus has gone on to win their party’s nomination (Stone). Do not be surprised if a few of the many Republicans running drop out not too soon after Iowa.

In conclusion, it’s important to note and consider everything that plays into the Iowa Caucus. In this paper we covered national political climate of this year, the leading candidates’ political positions, the results of the caucuses, how the results were interpreted in the press, and the importance of the Iowa Caucus. I never knew how much political upheaval this election caused between people of the U.S. and the delay it had because the polls were so close. Overall, this was an educational and informative paper, now I know and understand more about the 2000 political climate and impacts it had on the U.S.

Works Cited

  1. “Iowa Caucuses Results History 1972 to 2016.” DesMoinesRegister.com, https://data.desmoinesregister.com/iowa-caucus/history/#2000/gop.
  2. Jon Stone @joncstone. “Why Are the Iowa Caucuses so Important?” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Feb. 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/iowa-caucuses-explained-why-important-bernie-sanders-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-2016-a6846366.html.
  3. Levy, Michael. “United States Presidential Election of 2000.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 31 Oct. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-2000.
  4. Lilleston, Randy. “Election Year That Ended in 'Chadmania' Actually Began as Usual.” CNN, Cable News Network, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/year.in.review/story/politics/.
  5. Marks, Peter, and Bill Carter. “Media Rethink an Urge to Say Who's First.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Nov. 2000, https://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/09/us/2000-elections-network-predictions-media-rethink-urge-say-who-s-first.html.           

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