More than a day after most polls closed, we still don’t know for certain whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be the next president. There’s only one other time in recent memory that we’ve found ourselves president-elect-less at this point in the game, and it was after 2000’s contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which you may recall took 36 days and a Supreme Court vote to settle. Leon Neyfakh, the former host of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, dedicated the first season of his new show, Fiasco, to the 2000 election and its aftermath, and he agreed to speak to us about how the feelings we have right now compare to how people felt then, albeit on a much more abbreviated timeline so far. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. You can listen to the Bush v. Gore season of Fiasco for free now.
Slate: Generally, top-line summary, how do you feel like the day after this election compares to the day after the 2000 election?
Leon Neyfakh: In 2000, a lot of people went to bed thinking that George W. Bush was the president-elect. He had been declared the winner in Florida. In fact, Gore called Bush and conceded. But then there turned out to be irregularities in Florida. And so for the second time that night, the networks un-called Florida—earlier in the evening they had called it for Gore—and suddenly there was no president-elect. I think having that short period of time when there was a winner and the networks put up their fancy graphics showing Bush as the 43rd president of the United States, it was a really powerful starting position for him. It kind of set the narrative for the rest of the process.
What you had in 2000 was genuine confusion and genuine lack of information about who had gotten more votes in Florida, as compared with now, where it seems like a lot of the angst that people are feeling comes from President Trump saying that there is an attempt underway to steal the election. You didn’t have anything like that in 2000. You had two pretty mild-mannered candidates who didn’t want to get in the mud while their operatives and lawyers fought it out.
They were saying for weeks this time that we weren’t going to know the winner of election night. Going into the 2000 election, was the expectation that it would be over that night?
I’ve seen people point out that that’s a relatively new, relatively recent expectation that people have, but yeah, I would say by 2000, the elections had been televised in this way enough times and there had been a winner declared quite swiftly every time. It was an unprecedented result, in that networks hadn’t really gotten calls wrong like that before. It kind of made anything seem possible. Once you are told something with full certainty, and then that could just be taken back suddenly, it destabilizes your entire sense of what could happen next. It would have been less of a shock if there had just not been a result that night, if there had continued to not be a result for the next however long. I think 2000 probably helped prepare people for being able to accept that there was no winner last night.
When we ended up with no winner on the day after the 2000 election, did provide Americans any sense of how long the process would take?
Initially, there was not an expectation that this was going to be a month-long process. I think the lawyers all kind of thought this was going to be a two-to-three-day thing. There might’ve been some really savvy operatives who predicted that it was going to go that long. James Baker, who worked on the Bush side, reportedly said, “This is going to the Supreme Court, and that’s what we’re going to win this thing.” That doesn’t necessarily mean he knew how long it would take, but it means that he saw a long game. Everyone was kind of making it up as they went along.
What had the polls been like?
I think everyone knew it was going to be close. I don’t think anyone could have guessed that it would be a-couple-of-hundred-votes close. Certainly there was not a concentrated effort on either side to prepare their voters for a long haul before Election Day, the way the Biden campaign really went all out in terms of setting expectations and counseling patience.
There had been indications that Florida would be really close, but there were also indications that New Mexico would be really close, and it was, and Wisconsin. In fact, there were lawyers dispatched to both of those states to be stationed there and ready for litigation in case those states became decisive. It became clear within a few days that it would be all about Florida, but it was all just so improvised. The Gore lawyers flew down to Florida on [vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe] Lieberman’s plane because that was what was around. They called it “Recount One.” There were recount specialists on board giving the Gore lawyers a primer on recount strategy and recount protocols and Florida law.
What I came to appreciate making this season of Fiasco was that we talked about “the election,” but there’s not an election, there’s 50 states and Washington, D.C., and all of them have their own elections and they all have their own rules and their own schedules. In Florida in 2000, the counties had until X date to get their vote tallies in, whereas if the same thing had happened somewhere else, the schedule would have been totally different. The litigation would have been different.
I have the sense that Trump and Biden’s team both had armies of lawyers standing by this time, but that that was very much not the case in 2000.
In this election, you were hearing reports about Trump and Biden readying teams of lawyers so that they have this exact fight. In 2000, I think we talked to one guy [for the podcast] who was like, “I had a law degree, so I went.” It was all hands on deck. Really junior people ended up having bigger roles than they might’ve otherwise because not everyone has a law degree, but anyone who did was useful.
Campaigns had lots of people with law degrees working for them, but it’s not like they had a team of recount specialists in place. There was actually a big rush to hire lawyers in Florida by both sides. Logistically, it was a total nightmare to evaluate all 67 counties and whether there was an argument to make for a recount. The number of lawyers each side had was a totally real factor because it really put a limit on how much they could do to shake the snow globe.
I think one thing that’s been interesting about making the podcasts going back to Slow Burn is that in addition to there being parallels that you can spot between historical events and the present day, you also see the players learning from the past. When we did the Iran–Contra season of Fiasco, you could tell that Watergate was on everyone’s mind. Without a doubt, you can’t look at 2020 and the legal strategies that both sides are going to be employing over the next few days without considering where they learned those moves.
There was a lot of discussion this fall surrounding the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and the very real possibility that she could end up tilting the election toward Trump. The day after the election in 2000, did anyone have any idea it would end up decided by the Supreme Court?
I’m pretty confident in saying no. There were certainly recount experts who knew how recounts work and could probably game out various scenarios. But I don’t think it was even obvious during the first week that it would go to the Supreme Court. That didn’t even seem like a possibility while the recount was happening, until it suddenly seemed inevitable.
On social media today, people can track all these different election narratives on an hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute basis. It seems like it would have been so much harder to get a read on the whole situation and how it was being perceived in 2000.
I thought about that last night. How did people find out the latest? There was an internet already, but obviously it wasn’t how it is now. TV was really important, as it always has been and always will be. That meant that it was probably a little bit easier in certain ways for the two campaigns to try to influence how the public was feeling and what the public thought was happening. With social media, it’s so much harder to drive a narrative, because there’s no news cycle, there’s no modular kind of delivery mechanism for the news, like there is with newspapers and TV news. It’s all kind of chaotic, and feelings and attitudes spread maybe more easily than they did back then.
How would you describe the general mood during the month after the no-result election?
People were just as partisan back then as they are now, and they were invested in the election, but at the same time, it was not a big existential turning point in history. It was two candidates, neither of whom was all that beloved, coming in to replace a president who had overseen a pretty long period of peace and prosperity. The stakes just didn’t seem that high.
I was in 10th grade when all this happened, and I remember I was walking through the hall and I bumped into my math teacher. He made some comment like, “Can you believe this?” And I was like, “I just want to be over. I just want to know who won.” I was just a dumb teenager, and there were lots of good reasons to care who won, but there was a sense of like, “God, this is annoying and stupid.” Whereas I think both Trump supporters and Biden supporters have a pretty heightened sense of the stakes right now. If you were to go back and look at the late-night shows and man-on-the-street interviews, what you find is people having this kind of not detached attitude about it, but certainly not the emotional investment that I think a lot of people are experiencing right now. It was just more like, “God, this is weird and confusing and hard to follow.”
Republicans especially, because they were ahead in the original vote totals for Florida, they really successfully pushed that as a way to steer events in their direction. They wanted everyone to think it was ridiculous that Gore was still fighting. I think a big part of how people felt during that 36 days was, on some level, it did seem like Bush had won. Even probably Gore supporters would agree that it really felt like Bush had it, and Gore was trying to chip away at it.
What were some of the plotlines that turned out not to be pivotal?
The butterfly ballot, which ironically is sort of the main thing everyone remembers about the 2000 recount. In Palm Beach County, because of how the ballots were designed, a whole bunch of people accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore. This was by far the most spectacular fuckup that surfaced in the first days after the election. It seemed so unfair, which it was—all these people who wanted to go for Gore and had been thwarted by a design that was self-evidently flawed. I think it was 3,000 votes for Buchanan that were believed to be actually Gore votes. Three thousand votes would have been the ballgame like five times over, because the ultimate margin was only 537 votes. But there was nothing they could do about it. In the end, that subplot wasn’t really material to the outcome.
Did it feel like there was a turning point, or a core moment we should keep in mind now?
There were all these forks in the road, like, if Palm Beach County had been allowed to keep counting their votes, that would’ve given Gore an extra something like 200 votes. Imagine hearing on the news that Palm Beach County was asking for more time on their recount—there was no way for it to sound as pivotal as it would turn out to be. I think there was polling on people’s engagement, and I think people actually were quite engaged, but it was a hard story to follow. People have asked me, “What are the lessons for us in 2020?” One of them is don’t get bored. It could get really technical or in the weeds or bureaucratic, but that’s where elections are won when they aren’t won in a more traditional way.
Fiasco’s Bush v. Gore season is now free from Luminary. Listen to Episode 1: