A Wild Ride

Well, many of us predicted that the 2000 presidential race would be the closest in 40 years. But my, oh, my, did we understate the case.

Many of us were also convinced that the outcome would not be determined until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. But I doubt if anyone anticipated that long after dawn broke, millions of Americans would wake up to learn that neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore had been elected president.

Most incredible of all was how the bizarre stalemate came to pass.

Again, many of us suspected that Florida would turn out to be the showdown state, the fierce battleground that, in the end, would tip the decision one way or the other.

But it defies comprehension that anyone could have foreseen the topsy-turvy chain of decisions regarding the outcome in Florida that made this Election Night the most chaotic in our nation's history.

It began innocently enough. There seemed to be no reason to be unduly concerned when, early in the evening, voter projections led to the call that Gore had carried Florida. That was soon followed by projections that Gore would end up winning two other key battleground states – Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Those projected results put Gore squarely on the road toward the 270 electoral votes he needed to become the next president. But an hour or so later, there was a dramatic revision. The decision for Gore in Florida was retracted and the state was returned to the "too-close-to-call" category.

And it remained too close to call as we moved across the national electoral map past midnight and into the early morning hours. By 2 a.m. or so (ET), 47 of the 50 states were in one column or the other and the electoral vote stood at Gore, 249, and Bush, 246.

The only three states that were still up for grabs were Wisconsin, Oregon and Florida. But even if one of the candidates won both Wisconsin and Oregon, he would still be a few votes short of the magic 270.

Which meant that the outcome of the entire national election hinged on who would prevail in Florida. Then, with the actual vote counted in 96 percent of the precincts and Bush clinging to a slender lead of about 37,000 votes, the decision was made to declare the state – and thus the presidency – for Bush.

And that, we naturally assumed, was that: the verdict that brought an end to a stirring, turbulent night and one of the closest presidential contests to occur since we began this federal election business 212 years ago.

But the roller-coaster ride was not over. There was still another wild card to be played before this frantic, improbable night would pass into history.

In the aftermath of Bush's apparent victory, the gap between the governor and Gore in the Florida raw vote continued to narrow. And when it reached the point where there was no more than a few hundred votes separating the two candidates, the decision was made – once again – to return the Sunshine State to too-close-to-call status.

And without Florida in his column, Bush was no longer the president-elect.
At least for the time being.

According to the state's election officials, there would be a formal recount and it was set to commence sometime Wednesday. Heaven only knows what the outcome of that might be. As Gore himself is so fond of saying, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

In the meantime, as breakfast hour approached on Wednesday, the vice president held a narrow lead in the national popular vote. Which raises the prospect of Gore winning the popular vote while Bush – should he have the good fortune to nail down the elusive Florida victory – would win the electoral vote, and therefore the presidency.

You have to go all the way back to 1888 to find the last time a president was elected without winning the popular vote. Under ordinary circumstances, to have that kind of quirky result take place again would be quite a story.

But in light of the "twilight-zone" experience we went through Tuesday night, a mere split between the popular and electoral vote hardly seems worth getting excited about.