The Butterfly (ballot) Effect

It is a curious fact that on November 10, 2002, just two days after the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed Resolution 144, requiring Iraq to readmit UN weapons inspectors and comply with prior Security Council resolutions, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, M.D. gave the keynote address at the 2002 Annual Meeting and Expo of the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The meeting was held that year in Philadelphia, and I was in the audience for that address. As a political junkie, I knew who Dean was, but I had never heard him speak. Like nearly everyone else in that room, though, I was riveted. Given the venue and Dean’s background as an internist, he primarily called for universal health insurance (paid for by a full repeal of the 2001 tax cuts) among other health-related issues.

But in style and tone, he sounded very much like a man who wanted to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 against President George Walker Bush.

And by the time he formally announced his candidacy on June 23, 2003, I had already attended a handful of “Meet-Ups” organized in support of his likely candidacy.

Dean would ultimately lose the nomination to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry and running-mate Senator John Edwards of North Carolina would then lose narrowly to Bush (had Kerry flipped 80,000 votes in Ohio, he would have won the Electoral College [EV] 271-267, while still losing the popular vote by 2.4 percentage points).

As usual, vote totals come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

The keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was given by a little-known candidate for the United States (US) Senate (Senate) from Illinois named Barack Obama. Obama would easily win his Senate race that fall over Republican Alan Keyes.

Meanwhile, on February 12, 2005, Dean was elected Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Over the next four years, he would oversee the Democratic recapture of the US House of Representatives (House) and Senate in 2006, as well as the election of Obama as the first African-American president in 2008.

Dean’s greatest legacy, however, was being one of the first Democratic officials to call for an end to the Iraq War, which had launched on March 19, 2003. That mantle would be taken up a few years later by Obama in his battle against New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Obama would single out Clinton’s October 11, 2002 vote in favor of authorizing President Bush “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”[1]

Here is the full text of that resolution:

H. J. Res. 114

The Iraq War lasted until December 15, 2011, by which time some 5,000 coalition troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died (including deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein); more precise estimates are difficult to locate.

Rather than re-litigating the Iraq War, I simply state my firm belief that it does not happen if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach County, FL, intending to vote for Vice President Albert A. Gore, Jr. in the 2000 presidential election but confused by Florida’s “butterfly ballot,” had not mistakenly voted for Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan instead.

FL 2000 ballot

Yes, Gore gave a speech in San Francisco, CA on September 23, 2002 in which he declared himself open to future multilateral military action against Iraq for its ongoing defiance of UN inspections and sanctions. However, that speech was specifically in response to the authorization resolution then approaching final passage in the House and Senate.

In an alternate world in which Al Gore is president in 2002, the wording of that speech (calling the resolution far too broad and vague while explicitly de-linking Iraq from the September 11, 2001 attacks) tells me that no such resolution would have been proposed in Congress in 2002. And if it had, he would not have actively supported it the way President Bush did, convincing 29 (of 51[2]) Democrats to vote “Yes.”

Simply put: no authorizing resolution, no Iraq War (at least, not one that we would recognize).

**********

I recently speculated about the impact of a counterfactual Tom Dewey victory over President Harry Truman in 1948.

A few nights ago my wife Nell asked me if “I was done with Dewey.” Not sure what she meant, I started to talk about my interest in the counterfactual that Dutch Schultz does assassinate then-Special-Prosecutor Dewey in 1935.

“Basically, not much would have changed as…”

“No,” she gently interrupted my stream of consciousness, “I mean are you still writing about ‘what if so-and-so’ had won?”

“Maaaybe… why?”

“Because I am really interested in what would have happened if Gore had beaten Bush.”

[I paraphrase somewhat, but this is the gist of the conversation.]

I started to demur (having never “taken requests” before), but then I quickly became excited by the possibilities.

Just bear with me, then, while I briefly review the 2000 US presidential election.

Because President William J. Clinton could not seek a third term under Amendment XXII to the US Constitution, two Democrats (Gore and former New Jersey Senator William W. Bradley) and 13 Republicans (all but six of whom—then-Texas-governor Bush, Arizona Senator John McCain, Keyes, businessman Steve Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch—had withdrawn by the end of 1999) ran for president in 2000.

Gore would sweep the nominating contests, eventually choosing Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate; Lieberman was the first Jewish major-party nominee for president or vice president.

Bush would face a serious challenge from McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary on February 1 48.5 to 30.4%. However, McCain dropped out of the race on March 9, after losing the majority of Super Tuesday states two days earlier. Bush would ultimately name former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney as his running-mate.

The general election campaign was, frankly, boring. Bush led by a narrow, but consistent, margin in the public polling, though that margin had dropped to an average of just 2.0 percentage points by Election Day (November 7).  Complicating matters were the candidacies of Buchanan and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

My enduring memory of that election night is this sequence of events:

  • CNN declares Gore the winner of Florida, essentially making Gore the next president
  • CNN retracts that call, calling Florida “too close to call”
  • CNN declares Bush the winner of Florida, making him the next president
  • CNN retracts its call a second time, again calling Florida “too close to call”
  • Well after 2 am, I go to sleep

You may read about five weeks of hanging chads here. The upshot is that Bush was ultimately declared the winner of Florida—and the presidency—by 537 votes (out of 5,963,110 votes cast in Florida, and 105,425,985 cast nationwide).

Somewhat lost in the Florida recount drama was that Gore won the popular vote by almost 550,000 votes (48.4 to 47.9%).

**********

The least-complicated path to a Gore victory in 2000 is through the Palm Beach County voters who mistakenly voted for Buchanan. Had they voted “correctly,” Gore likely nets some 5,000 votes and is declared the winner early on the morning of November 8, 2000. Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush quietly signals to his older brother George that a recount is not worth the trouble, and the latter graciously concedes to Gore.

One thing would have changed immediately.

Once Lieberman was sworn in as vice president on January 20, 2001, the Connecticut’s Republican governor, John Rowland, would have appointed a Republican to replace him in the Senate (assuming two-thirds of the solidly Democratic legislature approved), giving Republicans a temporary 51-49 Senate majority. Under Connecticut law, though, a special election would have been held on or about August 31 (160 non-weekend days from January 20).

In our actual timeline, Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote Senate gave the Republicans the majority, despite a split 50-50. That changed on May 24, 2001, when Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation to Independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, effectively giving the latter a 51-49 majority.

With Gore as president, it is highly unlikely Jeffords switches parties (though he and Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—who both voted against H. J. Res. 114—would have continued to vote with the Democrats much of the time). However, it is also likely that only a very moderate Republican (Representative Chris Shays? former Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker?) would have won 2/3 approval of Connecticut’s General Assembly. Either way, a Democrat would have been a slight favorite to win the special election, restoring the Democrats 50-50 majority (with Vice President Lieberman the tie-breaker).

Meanwhile, the Republicans only had a nine-seat majority in the House, 222-213, including two Independents: one who typically voted with the Democrats (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and one who typically voted with the Republicans (Virgil Goode of Virginia).

The bottom line is this: Gore and Lieberman, having just won a narrow surprise victory (294-244 EV; 0.5 percentage points) would have faced a nominally Republican Congress—and an evenly divided nation.

**********

In my remarkably-similar Dewey victory scenario, I argued that nominating General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State would be the best unifying move he could make, while also eliminating a future rival for the presidency.

I argue Gore would have made an analogous move: appointing former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Colin Powell as Secretary of State or, less likely, Secretary of Defense.

Of course, that is exactly what President Bush did, making Powell the first African-American Secretary of State.

If Gore named Powell Secretary of Defense instead, I believe he names the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of Delaware, as Secretary of State. He may also have kept Madeline Albright on as Secretary of State, but I suspect he would have wanted to choose his own person.

Both men would have easily won Senate confirmation.

If Powell became Secretary of State, then a fascinating choice for Secretary of Defense would have been McCain. McCain may well have been too hawkish for Gore (and most Democrats), but the idea is worthy of consideration if only because of McCain’s bipartisan instincts and his closeness to Lieberman.[3]

Not to wander too far down a speculative rabbit hole, but having replaced the first female Secretary of State with a man, he could then have made history by nominating the first female Secretary of the Treasury (even if Lawrence Summers had only been serving in that role since July 2, 1999). Strong candidates include Alice Rivlin, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, or Janet Yellen, who had recently served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors (and in 2014 would become the first female Chair of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors).

Finally, while he may have been tired of serving after having spent the previous eight years as Secretary of the Interior, I think Bruce Babbitt would have been considered for Attorney General.

**********

It is difficult to remember post-9/11 how good things generally were in the US in January 2001. While the economy was slowing down (and would actually enter an eight-month-long recession in March 2001), it had been growing since July 1995, averaging 4.3-percentage-point quarterly increases in real Gross Domestic Product. The federal government actually ran surpluses in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000. The US was not at war, even accounting for ongoing conflict in the Balkans. Terrorism was not a perceived threat, despite 1998 attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and an attack on the USS Cole in 2000; all three attacks were launched by an Islamic militant organization called al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden.

The Bush Administration rode these budget surpluses to passage of massive tax cuts (Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act) on June 7, 2001. I still remember receiving my $300 rebate check. Bush himself was fairly popular, averaging 56.6% approval (vs. 31.4% disapproval) in Gallup polls.

My surmise is that President Gore, facing a nominally Republican Congress, calls for much smaller, targeted tax cuts.

But otherwise, he would almost certainly have used the budget surpluses to pay for his top domestic priority (besides preventing the Social Security trust fund from being raided, brilliantly parodied here): battling climate change.

We can argue about the economic impact of the 2001 (and 2003) Bush tax cuts. However, on this point I stand firm: Iraq War aside, the loss of eight years of action to reverse the human-activity-caused warming of the Earth’s atmosphere was the single worst impact of Bush’s victory.[4]

**********

And then came the morning of September 11, 2001.

I am agnostic on whether the Bush Administration “should” have known an attack like that was coming, although there is evidence they…misunderestimated…warning signs. Still, to know that al-Qaeda was going to attack those targets in that way on that day is absurd. Was there a clear, if vague, threat? Yes. Could 9/11 have been prevented? I have absolutely no idea.

So I must conclude that 9/11, or something similar, still happens.

Outside of doing everything in his power to capture (or kill) Bin Laden, and not using the attack as the pretext to invade Iraq, I cannot say with certainty how the Gore Administration would have handled such an event.

I will always give President Bush credit for his immediate response: calming the nation in a televised address, standing with his bullhorn at Ground Zero, and immediately going into Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda.

I have no doubt President Gore would have behaved remarkably similarly—calm, resolute and determined.

It is after that I think their paths diverge.

Would there still have been a Patriot Act and, by extension, a Department of Homeland Security? We cannot know for sure, but I think the answer is no.

Would there still have been a War on Terror? Possibly, but it would have looked very different; it would not have been used (like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to justify all manner of foreign policy interventions. My evidence for this, again, is Gore’s September 2002 speech.

The counter-argument is that no Democrat ever wants to appear weak on national security matters, although Gore’s own service in Vietnam—and the presence of Powell—would have insulated him somewhat.

On balance, then, the response to 9/11 would have very similar in the short term (most notably, the invasion of Afghanistan), but very different in the longer term (no Patriot Act, no “War on Terror”—and no Iraq War).

**********

In the actual 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans defied recent history by netting two Senate and eight House seats; based on the average of the previous five midterm elections for a newly-elected president, Republicans should have lost one Senate seat and 15 House seats.[5] These atypical gains resulted in part from a rally-‘round-the flag effect of the ongoing response to 9/11 (chart from here).

1200px-George_W_Bush_approval_ratings_with_events.svg

Under President Gore, would Democrats have gained two Senate seats, or lost one? Would they have gained eight House seats, or lost 15? Let’s split the difference: the Democrats net one Senate seat (giving them a 51-49 edge), while losing only three or four House seats.

This makes the 2002 midterm elections effectively a wash.

It is in 2004, however, that things get dicey for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections. Limiting those elections to the five in which only a fourth consecutive term was being sought, the percentage improves to three out of five (60%).

However, there has only been one such opportunity (President George H. W. Bush losing reelection in 1992) since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson failed to win a sixth consecutive Democratic victory. And all eight previous such elections occurred when one party tended to control the White House (Republicans won all but four elections from 1860 to 1928, Democrats won all but two elections from 1932 to 1964). Starting in 1968, though, Republicans held the White House for 28 of 48 years (through 2016)—and a Gore Administration would have brought Democrats to parity.

In other words, short of capturing Bin Laden (say, at Tora Bora in December 2001), it would have been very difficult for Democrats to win a fourth consecutive term in 2004.

Who would have beaten the Gore-Lieberman ticket?

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004.

The growing ever-more-conservative wing of the party still viewed him with suspicion in 2008 (one reason he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate), so he would likely have been challenged from the right. Possible candidates (who actually ran in 2008 or 2012) include Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Texas Governor Rick Perry and Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN). Of those candidates, only Huckabee (7), Santorum (11) and Gingrich (2) ever won any primaries or caucuses.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to see anyone wresting the nomination from McCain.

Who would McCain then have chosen as his running mate?

“Conventional” picks include Jeb Bush, especially given the importance of Florida in 2000, and three Ohioans: former Representative John Kasich (who ran briefly in 2000), Senator Mike DeWine and Governor Bob Taft. Whoever had won more social conservative votes between Huckabee and Santorum could have made a good “unity” pick, while Thompson’s aw-shucks conservatism (and acting career) would have been appealing as well.

He also could have considered three women: North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle. Either of Maine’s two Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, would have been deemed too moderate.

My guess?

None of the above.

That McCain wanted his close friend Lieberman to be his 2008 running mate shows how important that personal connection was to him. I do not know if he was as close to McCain in 2004 as he is now, but my gut tells me he picks South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had become a conservative darling as one of the House prosecutors in President Clinton’s January 1999 Senate impeachment trial.

There is one more reason why I think the McCain-Graham ticket wins in 2004: no Karl Rove.

As Bush’s chief strategist, Rove emphasized maximizing base turnout over “running to the center.” One way he did this was through controversial 2004 state ballot initiatives on such issues as gay marriage and stem cell research.

But if Bush loses in 2000, Rove never gets the chance to use that strategy in 2004, likely altering Republican strategy for the next 12 years. McCain is thus free to re-run his 2000 nomination-contest playbook: appealing to Independents and like-minded Democrats (while Graham shores up the Republican base).

It works, in my opinion, with McCain holding Bush’s 244 EV while adding Florida (27), Michigan (17) and New Mexico (5), winning 293 to 245.

Of course, whichever ticket won in 2004 would have faced the same rough four years President Bush actually did: Hurricane Katrina, the near-collapse of the auto industry, the Great Recession of 2007-08, and so forth. And it is easy to imagine an aggressive McCain committing American troops around the world (perhaps even in…wait for it…Iraq).

Who would then defeat President McCain in 2008? It would not have been Dean (without Bush, he never runs for president) or Obama (who bides his time by winning reelection to the Senate in 2010). Probable candidates include Clinton, Edwards (who wins reelection in 2004), Biden, Lieberman, Kerry and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. I do not think former Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) or Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd run.

Clinton is almost certainly the prohibitive front-runner (especially without an Iraq War vote to defend), but any of these candidates (pre-Rielle-Hunter Edwards, in particular) could have given her a tough time.

And with a Democratic victory in 2008—Clinton-Edwards? Biden-Clinton? Clinton-Richardson?—we loop back into a familiar timeline.

Albeit one in which…

  1. The Iraq War as we know it never happens,
  2. Addressing climate change is a top domestic priority,
  3. The War on Terror never happens,
  4. There is no Patriot Act or Department of Homeland Security,
  5. No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill (Medicare Part D) never exist,
  6. Tax cuts are smaller and more targeted,
  7. The budget surpluses of 1999-2000 are not eliminated by tax cuts, two wars and the prescription drug bill, and
  8. Very possibly, the US elects a female president in 2008.

Until next time…

[1] H.J.Res. 114 — 107th Congress: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

[2] This total includes Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who was caucusing with the Democrats.

[3] McCain now says he regrets not choosing Lieberman as his running-mate in 2008.

[4] Point of personal privilege: in the 1990s, I dated a woman who earned her doctorate in chemistry from MIT. She s spent the summer of 1994 in New Zealand analyzing data on the shrinking ozone layer gathered by planes that would fly from New Zealand over the Antarctic. Her doctoral adviser, Mario Molina, was a co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work in atmospheric chemistry. Climate change is real, and we humans are causing it. Full stop.

[5] These are the median values from 1970, 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1994. I used the median, rather than the averages (-2 Senate seats, -23 House seats) to avoid extreme skew from the Democratic performance in 1994 (Bill Clinton’s first midterm election: a net loss of nine Senate and 54 House seats).

3 thoughts on “The Butterfly (ballot) Effect

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