Election Ennui

Updated March 4, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

The presidential election of 2000 between Vice President Al Gore (D) and Texas governor George W. Bush (R) was the tightest election in four decades. The neck-and-neck race, however, was also perceived to be one of the least dynamic on issues.

The longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in American history continued in 2000 with the third federal budget surplus in a row, low inflation, and an unemployment rate less than 4%. The conventional wisdom that peace and prosperity in an election year leads to voter ennui was never more evident: the party conventions and presidential debates drew smaller audiences than in previous elections, and at 51.2%, voter participation in the national election only slightly exceeded the 1996 turnout (49%), the lowest since 1924.

While the candidates were divided sharply along ideological lines on issues such as gun control, abortion, taxes, and the role of government, Gore and Bush both avoided emphasizing hot-button issues, hovering cautiously on either side of the political center. Beyond their core positions—Bush advocated smaller government and a $1.3 trillion across-the-board tax cut (two-thirds of the budget surplus); Gore supported governmental activism and a much smaller tax cut ($500 billion) targeted at middle- and lower-income Americans—the candidates' differences were often lost in a welter of detail about prescription drug benefits and school vouchers. These specific domestic policies were meant to appeal to various important voting blocs, but the strategy failed to generate any real passion among mainstream voters. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate observed that “there's a broad mass of the American people who are not involved in most of the issues at stake. The candidates are not talking to a lot of people.” Campaign finance reform galvanized a broad swath of voters for a short time, but soon went the way of its bipartisan champions, Bill Bradley (D) and John McCain (R), whose campaigns folded after Super Tuesday.

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