Twelve years ago, I voted for Ralph Nader for president. I did so not because I particularly wanted him to be president, and certainly not because I thought he ever would be, but because I wanted him to reach 2% of the popular vote, which would have made the Green Party eligible for the presidential debates in 2004. So young and naive I was, hoping to get more voices into the national debate!
Anyway, I voted for Nader but I was fervently rooting for Al Gore, and since I lived in deep-blue California at the time, I didn’t have to worry about that contradiction throwing the election to Bush. But then the Florida recounts happened, Bush ended up on top, and though it wasn’t the result I wanted to see, I couldn’t help feeling like he won it fair and square.
I use “fair and square” euphemistically, of course, because the Bush campaign used every dirty, dishonest trick in the book, and came up with a few new ones, to win Florida (or, more accurately, to prevent Gore from winning it). But it was a FIGHT, and Bush and his campaign won it.
The point is: the 2000 recount was as good a simulated surprise crisis as a non-incumbent presidential candidate is ever likely to see, and it showed what kind of organizations the candidates were running. Gore’s was sloppy, disorganized, and constantly crying foul about the Bush team’s tactics. The Bush campaign mobilized immediately, sent armies of people to Florida to influence the outcome, and put its various friends in high places to work. It wasn’t pretty, but when push came to shove, Bush had the better-run organization, and he won.
A presidential campaign is long, it’s repetitive, and it’s boring, but it’s also a pretty good Nerf version of the presidency — you can take it out and throw it around without really breaking anything. The candidates are under unbelievable pressure each and every day, every word they say is scrutinized and spun one way or another, and they sit at the head of a big organization, and they’re being pulled in every direction by a million interested parties. It’s ridiculous, it’s antiquated, it’s terribly annoying if you pay more than passing attention to it, but it’s also the best indicator there is of what kind of president that candidate will turn out to be.