The Democratic nominee for president wielded more raw power than anyone else in the nation during the five weeks after Election Day, according to “At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election” (Regnery), the new book by Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent of The Washington Times.
In the first of three excerpts, he details how the TV networks helped Mr. Gore exploit the debacle in Florida with a bad call that pre-empted Bush voters in the western panhandle.
Bob Glass was running late. He hustled his little red Geo past Bubbas Bar-B-Q Pit and the 4-H Club and the Lots O Snacks on his way toward Interstate 10 and his polling place.
Mr. Glass was at the westernmost tip of the Florida panhandle and had to get clear to the other side of Pensacola in less than half an hour. Traffic would be murder, what with all the military personnel streaming out of installations to vote for a new commander in chief.
But Mr. Glass, 50, had never failed to cast a ballot in a presidential election — and he wasnt about to now.
Mr. Glass sells, well, glass. Dont bother with the wisecracks; hes heard them all. People ask if he legally changed his name as a promotional gimmick for his windshield-replacement business, which he runs from the back room of his brothers house six miles from the Alabama border.”
“No, Ive had this name since 1950,” Mr. Glass says with a weary chuckle. “For as far back as I can remember.”
Mr. Glass swung the 1996 Geo onto the highway entrance ramp. The words “WINDSHIELD EXPRESS” fan across the tinted top of the windshield in white vinyl letters, slightly askew. The left and right sides of the car are adorned with white magnetic signs that say: “Windshield Express: Keep it local, keep it fast; let us repair your auto glass.”
Mr. Glass came up with that slogan himself. To anyone who makes fun of it, he points out that the traveling billboard generates quite a few cold calls from fellow motorists who end up as paying customers. Oh, and it doesnt hurt that a “Bush-Cheney” sticker is affixed to the back bumper.
Out here in Escambia County, people like to say Florida is the only state in which north is south and south is north.
What they mean is that in northern Florida, where the Panhandle runs right along the Georgia and Alabama borders, folks consider themselves Southerners. Its the kind of place where waitresses in even the finest restaurants think nothing of addressing middle-age businessmen theyve never met before as “honey,” “sugar,” “sweetie” and even “baby.” This isnt just the South; its the Deep South.
Supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush for president outnumbered supporters of Vice President Al Gore by more than 2-to-1 in the Panhandles 10 westernmost counties, which collectively form the only region of Florida that falls within the Central Time Zone.
Floridas remaining 57 counties are in the Eastern Time Zone. As far as Mr. Glass is concerned, they might as well be in the Twilight Zone. For starters, fully half the voters of the eastern 57 counties supported Al Gore.
And every time Mr. Glass crossed the time line, he says, it seemed to get worse. The farther he traveled east and then south down the peninsula, the more he ran into liberal Democrats, who continued to invade these warmer climes from up north, particularly New York and New England.
“Im a firm believer that everyone from Orlando south is not a native Floridian,” harrumphs Mr. Glass, who once endured a year in Orlando before retreating to his beloved Panhandle.
The little red car chugged east along the northern edge of Pensacola. Mr. Glass still had 20 minutes to make it to his polling place, Scenic Heights Baptist Church. He knew all he had to do was get into line by 7 p.m. Central Time (8 p.m. Eastern) and he couldnt be turned away.
Even if the line stretched outside the church and around the block, he would be able to vote for president. He might not actually cast his ballot until 7:15 or 7:30 or even 7:45, but he was determined to stand up and be counted for George W. Bush.
Mr. Glass is what pollsters call a “highly motivated voter.” A rock-ribbed Republican all his life, he had cast ballots for Richard Nixon in 1972; Gerald Ford in 1976; Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984; George Bush in 1988 and 1992; and Bob Dole in 1996.
He considers it a travesty that Bill Clinton and Al Gore evicted the elder Bush from the White House in 1992. For eight years, he watched with growing frustration as the Clinton-Gore team took the nation down what he considered the wrong path.
For Mr. Glass, a Southern Baptist, the final straw came when Mr. Clinton, also a Baptist, had sex with a White House intern young enough to be his daughter — and then lied under oath to cover it up. Mr. Glass believed the only honorable thing for Mr. Clinton to do was resign and spare the nation the wrenching ordeal of impeachment.
But he says the crowning insult came just hours after Mr. Clinton was impeached, when Mr. Gore stood on the South Lawn of the White House and pronounced his boss one of the greatest presidents in history.
Now Mr. Gore himself was running for president. He specifically talked about his presidency as one that would last eight years, not four. The colossal presumptuousness sickened Mr. Glass. And if anything, Mr. Gore was more of a liberal, tax-and-spend Democrat than Mr. Clinton.
“Id had it up to here with Clinton-Gore,” Mr. Glass recalls, flattening a palm and raising it dead level to his blue eyes.
Although he never had been active in party politics, he began attending meetings of the Escambia County Republican Party. As the election drew near, he agreed to help run a phone bank.
Unlike some younger volunteers, who used a script in placing their calls, the 50-year-old Mr. Glass spoke from his heart. With a soft Southern affability, he tried to impart to fellow Republicans the importance of voter turnout. He even offered to drive them to the polls.
The day before the election, Mr. Glass and other volunteers stood on street corners, clutching Bush-Cheney signs and waving to motorists.
“I was — ,” Mr. Glass grasped for words, ” — on fire. You know, for the cause. Oh, I was highly motivated.”
Mr. Glass spent more and more time on the Internet, visiting conservative chat rooms to share his passion. He sensed a unity not just in Florida, but in other states.
“It was a feeling Republicans hadnt felt in a long time,” he says.
And yet, in the closing days of the campaign, Mr. Glass began to fret that Mr. Gore was somehow pulling ahead.
He winced when the media went ballistic over the 11th-hour revelation that Mr. Bush had been cited for drunken driving 24 years earlier. The story, leaked by a Gore supporter, dominated TV news coverage the weekend before the election.
“I could see it falling away from G.W. Bush, I really could. I mean, those last-minute tactics like the DUI thing. Oh, it was just horrible. I could just see it slipping away.
“Granted, I think he should have been more upfront with it sooner,” adds Mr. Glass, a teetotaler. “Then they wouldnt have made such a big deal out of it.”
Like anyone else who had paid even passing attention to the campaign in its final hundred hours, Mr. Glass was aware that after months of speculation about this state or that being a “battleground,” the polls and conventional wisdom coalesced around three as most crucial: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.
Mr. Gore, the underdog, could win the election only if he swept the “trifecta,” as these states were being called by conservative and liberal pundits alike. The flip side of this theory was that Mr. Bush had to retain at least one of the three — preferably Florida, the largest — to become the next president.
Mr. Glass became alarmed by indications that Mr. Gore was firming up his numbers in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If these warning signs proved true, the election might well come down to the Sunshine State. His fears were confirmed when Mr. Gore chose Florida in which to end the campaign he had begun 18 months earlier. The vice presidents confident optimism troubled Mr. Glass.
“Tonight, when the vote comes in, were going to win Florida and were going to win the White House,” Mr. Gore vowed during a televised rally in Tampa only minutes before polls opened Election Day. “Its almost 5:30 a.m., Texas time, and George W. Bush is still asleep. And Im still speaking to people here in Florida.”
Mr. Glass couldnt help but worry that Mr. Gore was right. The rally was merely the capstone of a furious get-out-the-vote effort by Florida Democrats. It was the kind of ground war that Democrats usually win.
But Mr. Glass also knew that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican nominees younger brother, had spent years cultivating a remarkably effective, county-by-county Republican machine. As one of the innumerable cogs in Jebs machine, Mr. Glass had done his best to kick things into overdrive. Yet he now entertained serious doubts.
The bad call
Having driven as far east as he could without actually leaving Pensacola, Mr. Glass swung onto Scenic Highway and headed south along Pensacola Bay. Expensive, waterfront homes with spectacular views lined the left side of the road.
He planned to cut through a subdivision to get to the church on time. He was less than half a mile from the turnoff and it was only 6:50. Plenty of time.
On previous election days Mr. Glass had voted early, on his way into work. But he had felt compelled to attend a breakfast meeting of the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce; he considered “networking” important for his fledgling business.
Mr. Glass listened to the radio as he neared the church. He was a big fan of talk radio, which he considered the only sector of the American news media not completely overrun by liberal Democrats.
That afternoon he had tuned in a show hosted by local conservative Luke McCoy, who lived just three town houses away from him on a cul-de-sac off Scenic Highway. Mr. McCoy got an on-air call from Jeb Bush, who had just arrived in Austin, Texas, to monitor election returns with his brother.
“Hey, Luke — Jeb Bush,” the Florida governor had said. “I just want to urge you to do everything you can to get the vote out. Its going to be very tight, and we need the people of the Panhandle.”
As Mr. Glass neared the turnoff for his polling place, he flitted from station to station in hopes of catching a little election coverage.
“… and so Al Gore has won Floridas 25 electoral votes,” a voice crackled from the radio.
Alone in his Geo, Mr. Glass cursed aloud.
“How can this be?” he remembers thinking. “Were not through voting yet.”
The fire goes out
Sure, polls had closed nearly an hour ago in the Eastern Time Zone. But here in the Central Time Zone, where Bush supporters outnumbered Gore supporters by more than 2-to-1, voters were lined up outside polling places from Pensacola to Panama City. They could show up for another 10 minutes. And those in line by the stroke of 7 could vote no matter how long it took.
Voters have been known to stand in line for up to two hours in presidential elections. Military personnel are notorious for crowding into polling places on the way home from work. The western Panhandle teemed with military installations. The Naval Air Station was right there on Pensacola Bay. This was the very cradle of naval aviation, the storied home of the legendary Blue Angels.
These were not the kind of voters who were going to support Al Gore. But would they be willing to continue standing in line now that Mr. Gore already had won Florida?
Mr. Glass mind raced. He understood how the Electoral College functioned. He knew all too well that the presidential race would be determined by electoral votes, not popular votes.
Floridas 25 electoral votes would not be divvied up to reflect each mans share of the popular vote. It was winner-take-all and loser-take-nothing.
And although the presidential election is widely regarded as Americas only national political race, no persons vote has the slightest practical impact whatsoever outside of his or her own state.
Flush with anger and a sense of dread that Mr. Gores win in Florida would put him over the top nationally, Mr. Glass drove straight past the turnoff for his polling place at the church. Although other Republicans were on the ballot, including an acquaintance running for sheriff, those candidates vanished from his radar screen.
Bob Glass suddenly felt the fire in his belly go out. For the first time in his adult life, he decided not to exercise his sacred right to vote for president of the United States.
“Whats the use?” he recalls reasoning. “I mean, if Gores already won the state, theres no use in voting for Bush.
“I was so infuriated. I was distraught. And I just went home.”
Bush’s net loss
Mr. Glass was among 187,000 registered voters in the Central Time Zone of Florida who did not cast ballots in the 2000 election. The overwhelming majority failed to vote because of good old-fashioned, garden-variety apathy.
But tens of thousands of others were dissuaded by the premature, erroneous declaration of a Gore victory, according to studies conducted by Democrats, independents and Republicans. Taken together, these surveys show the bad call caused Mr. Bush a net loss of about 10,000 votes.
“By prematurely declaring Gore the winner shortly before the polls had closed in Floridas conservative western Panhandle, the media ended up suppressing the Republican vote,” concluded John R. Lott Jr., senior research scholar at Yale University Law School.
Mr. Lott put Mr. Bushs net loss at a “conservative estimate of 10,000 votes.”
John McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican polling firm based in Washington, D.C., pegged the loss at 11,500 votes. Its poll, conducted Nov. 15 and 16, showed the premature calling of Florida for Mr. Gore dissuaded 28,050 voters from casting ballots. Although 23 percent were Gore supporters, 64 percent — or nearly three times as many — would have voted for Mr. Bush.
“The premature announcement discouraged many registered voters who, according to our surveys results, would have voted like the rest of their neighbors — overwhelmingly for George W. Bush,” said the surveys authors, senior analyst Stuart Polk and data specialist Charlie Banks. “If only a few thousand of these disenfranchised voters had heard that the polls were still open, and the race in Florida was still too close to call — and then voted — George W. Bush would have gained a decisive, net positive margin of votes over Al Gore.
“These votes would have helped Bush carry the popular vote statewide,” the pollsters concluded, “without uncertainty.”
Even a study commissioned by Democratic strategist Bob Beckel concluded Mr. Bush suffered a net loss of up to 8,000 votes in the western Panhandle after Florida was called for Mr. Gore.
These surveys, like others conducted after previous elections, demonstrated that early projections of victory generally dissuade supporters of the losing candidate more than the winning candidate.
Indeed, Mr. Glass later would learn that many voters standing in line at Scenic Heights Baptist Church and elsewhere went home after hearing the news.
News travels fast in the Information Age. In the 11-minute interval between NBC News calling Florida for Mr. Gore and the polls “closing,” fully two-thirds of all voters in the western Panhandle heard about it, the McLaughlin survey found.
It is difficult to overstate the political and historical significance of the suppressed turnout in the western Panhandle. If the network news had not jumped the gun, Mr. Bush would have netted roughly 10,000 more votes in the Florida results, an election that ended up being decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Those 10,000 votes would not have been enough to prevent the automatic recount mandated by Florida law when the statewide margin of victory is less than one-half of 1 percent. But they certainly would have presented the Gore team with a much higher mountain to climb.
Indeed, one crucial calculation that convinced Mr. Gore to fight so tenaciously for 36 days after the election was that he was only a few hundred votes shy of victory.
His lawyers and spinners constantly laid out scenarios in which they cobbled together enough votes in this county and that county to overcome Mr. Bushs razor-thin margin of victory. A five-digit margin would have been much more daunting than a three-digit one.
NBCs premature and erroneous announcement at 6:49 p.m. set off a stampede among the other networks. Although virtually all the network executives later admitted they were wrong, they refused to acknowledge having influenced as much as a single voter in the western Panhandle.
“In the case of Florida, it would be extremely difficult to argue any impact on turnout,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward insisted. “The polls were closed in all but 5.8 percent of the states precincts, with the rest closing just 10 minutes later.”
Mr. Heyward didnt mention that those precincts contained half a million registered voters.
ABC News President David Westin was even more dismissive.
“There was no point during the evening when it was likely or even possible that voters would decide not to vote simply because of the erroneous projection of the presidential race in Florida,” Mr. Westin declared.
Mr. Glass calls these assertions arrogant.
“When you give out information that directly impacts peoples behavior, that is just wrong, wrong, wrong,” he says. “By anybodys standards, its wrong.
“You know, a lot of people take the news as gospel,” he adds. “Course, I realize you have to rely on yourself to discern the truth in what the media says. Theres a fine line between the news and what you get out of the news.
“But even then, you depend on news almost as gospel. Somebodys got to be responsible for this.”