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A Contested 2020 Election Would Be Way Worse Than Bush v. Gore

It’s Wednesday, Nov. 4, and the vote count is too close to call. Neither President Trump nor former Vice President Joe Biden is conceding defeat, recounts are being conducted, disputes over recounts are being lodged, and a court case will soon be making its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Trump has voiced his belief that there is widespread ballot fraud and as a result there’s already some degree of civil unrest.

This is the nightmare scenario for 2020, one in which a disputed election drives the country further apart. It’s also one that’s vaguely familiar. In 2000, there was no clear winner in the contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. That triggered a recount and a controversial Supreme Court decision that ultimately determined the presidency for Bush. Yet even in the direct aftermath of Bush v. Gore, Americans still kept the faith in democratic institutions and the process. I went looking for lessons from that period of disruption. But all I found were the first cancer cells that have metastasized in our political system over the past 20 years.

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It’s not that Americans didn’t think something had gone wrong in 2000 — in a CBS News poll conducted after the Supreme Court’s decision in mid-December, 60 percent of people said there had not been a fair and accurate count of votes. Still, 59 percent of people in an ABC News/Washington Post poll from the same time said their opinion of the court remained unchanged. The same poll asked what people would think if there were an unofficial recount and Gore were declared the winner. Would they consider Bush legitimately elected? Eighty-four percent answered, “Yes.”

It’s difficult to imagine similar sentiments in December 2020 if the Supreme Court intervened. Already, Americans say they are worried about something going wrong. In a late September Monmouth University poll, 39 percent of people said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the 2020 election would be conducted “fairly and accurately.” A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll from about the same time found that while 60 percent of people surveyed said the election would be fair, 39 percent said it wouldn’t be. The open seat on the Supreme Court has only complicated matters.

Journalists’ recitation of engrained partisanship is now somewhat rote, but the scale of our almost-religious alienation from one another is sort of breathtaking; we were not this divided a nation in 2000. Pew Research tracked partisanship trends in America from 1994 to 2017 by measuring responses to the same questions about things like views on gay marriage and immigration. In 1999, there was a 15-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on these questions. In 2017, the difference was 36 points.

But man, did we think we had it bad back in the 15-point difference world.

The history of the 2000 election recount generally tells about the partisan spin that polluted the airwaves during the counting of the ballots. (If you are too young to know what a “hanging chad” is, please Google; it was important in American life for a few weeks, but I just don’t have the strength to get into it here.) Gore’s team wanted officials to recount ballots by hand in four heavily Democratic counties where the vote was quite close, while Bush’s team wanted to stop the recount entirely.

James Baker was Bush’s point-man in Florida, having served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, and was quick to realize that the campaign would need to wage a war for public opinion. “We’re getting killed on ‘count all the votes.’ Who the hell could be against that?” Jeffrey Toobin quoted Baker as saying in his book about the recount, “Too Close to Call.” Gore’s team thought it had the “moral authority to make his case,” according to a New York Times report from two days after Election Day. It allowed “Democrats to suggest that the Republicans are trying to subvert the will of the people.”

As the drama unfolded, many Americans thought more votes needed to be tallied, but they also thought Gore should concede defeat. In a Fox News survey from late November, the plurality of people, 47 percent, thought that not all the votes in Florida had been counted. But the same survey also found that 56 percent of people thought Gore should concede.

This psychology is fascinating when seen through 2020’s rearview mirror. It speaks to a certain satisfaction some people had with the general political state of things: Either Bush or Gore would do just fine. It’s the sort of laissez-faire attitude toward election outcomes that 15-point partisan differences buy you. In the 36-point era, we’re discussing all-out civil war if things are too close to call on election night.

We have accelerated the formation of our separate partisan worlds over the past four years. These worlds accept different realities. Democrats generally accept fact-based conclusions (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs), and Republicans — or at least the Republican Party — generally eschew the conclusions of experts on things like climate change and COVID-19 (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs). Given all this, doesn’t it necessarily follow that we would continue down this garden path of separate realities when it comes to an initially indeterminate election outcome? One version of reality accepts a President Biden while the other accepts a President Trump, each with baroque arguments — about the eligibility of certain ballots or the legitimacy of the Electoral College — nicely retrofitted to match a predetermined conclusion.

In a piece in the 2010 collection “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment,” David Greenberg, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, traced this inability to accept a common reality to the 2000 election and the postmodern brilliance of Baker and company: “The Bush team didn’t just contend that a recount would fail to identify the true winner more accurately; more radically, they argued that any accurate tally was unattainable — that the truth was unknowable.”

Greenberg points to a famous quote given to the New York Times Magazine by a Bush aide for further proof of the roots of this kind of thinking:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Professionally, I’m a member of the reality-based community. I try to think empirically about America, her culture, people and oh-so-screwy politics. That’s been a challenge as Trump and the Republican Party have perfected the creation of one’s own reality and the belittling of the reality-based community. During the first debate, the president waffled on whether he would concede defeat, falling back on his go-to line about the fraudulent — and unfounded — dangers of mail voting. If he actually does this post-Election Day, media organizations will be forced to grapple with reporting on the news of the day — the president’s words — and battling misinformation and mistrust. It’s more than the press had to contend with in 2000, and it’s an unwinnable scenario. But it’s the reality of our 36-point world.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.