Donald Trump is being pilloried for refusing to say that he will accept the results of the election on November 8.
However, this is not new behavior for the GOP. While it’s almost forgotten now, the George W. Bush campaign was planning to challenge the results of the 2000 vote if he lost the electoral vote, but won the popular vote. His campaign hoped to spark a national movement to pressure members of the Electoral College in states where the popular vote went for Al Gore to ignore that and instead vote in line with the national popular vote — thus making Bush president.
In the end, the reverse happened. Bush won the Electoral College vote while losing the popular vote.
But in the weeks before the November 7, 2000, election, it seemed more likely that Gore would get a majority of electoral votes, while Bush, buoyed by a wide margin in his home state of Texas, would have the most votes by actual people. This possibility was widely discussed, including in the Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor and in an Associated Press polling analysis.
Gore was even preemptively criticized for winning under these circumstances. It “would be an outrage” said Rep. Ray LaHood, R.-Ill. NBC’s Chris Matthews said that “knowing him as we do, [Gore] may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush.” (Matthews lost interest in this issue when the opposite occurred. He later said that he himself had voted for Bush in 2000.)
On November 1, Michael Kramer, formerly Time’s political columnist, wrote about the Bush campaign’s plans in the New York Daily News, where he was managing editor:
So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?
“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”
How? The core of the emerging Bush strategy assumes a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course.
In league with the campaign – which is preparing talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged. “We’d have ads, too,” says a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.”
Local business leaders will be urged to lobby their customers, the clergy will be asked to speak up for the popular will and Team Bush will enlist as many Democrats as possible to scream as loud as they can. “You think ‘Democrats for Democracy’ would be a catchy term for them?” asks a Bush adviser.
The universe of people who would be targeted by this insurrection is small – the 538 currently anonymous folks called electors, people chosen by the campaigns and their state party organizations as a reward for their service over the years.
On November 3, the Boston Herald reported that if Bush won the popular vote, his campaign “would likely challenge the legitimacy of a Gore win, casting it as an affront to the people’s will and branding the Electoral College as an antiquated relic.”
Then on November 5, two days before the election, the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote that the possibility of a split popular and electoral vote decision “has strategists in the Bush and Gore camps mapping out preliminary game plans for a national protest, should either wind up victorious in the eyes of the voters only to be vanquished before the Electoral College.”
The Daily News article had also quoted an anonymous Gore campaign official as claiming that if Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College that “we’d be doing the same thing Bush is apparently getting ready for. … They’re just further along in their contingency thinking than we are.”
However, this was clearly wrong, since Gore did not do “the same thing.” The day after the election, he stated that “Despite the fact that Joe Lieberman and I won the popular vote, under our Constitution it is the winner of the Electoral College who will be the next president. Our Constitution is the whole foundation of our freedom and it must be followed faithfully.”
Likewise, when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, making Bush the winner of the Electoral College even though Gore had won the popular vote, Gore conceded in a notably generous speech.
In a book published in 2001, CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield described something quite similar to the original Daily News report. “At least two conservative commentators,” wrote Greenfield, “were specifically briefed by the Bush campaign shortly before taking to the airwaves about the line of attack to be taken in the event that Bush wound up losing the electoral count despite a popular vote lead.”
Greenfield also quoted Kenneth Duberstein, one-time chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, as saying that the illegitimacy of a Gore presidency based only on an Electoral College victory “was part of the talking points” for GOP surrogates.
For what it’s worth, Karl Rove later denied that the Bush campaign had done anything like this.
Of course, it is true that the Electoral College is unfair and an antiquated relic. But the time to change it is not the day after an election. Candidates make decisions about where to campaign and place resources based on the Electoral College rules. It would be disastrous to allow one party to play Calvinball with the U.S. presidential election and change the rules at the end of the game just because they lost. That the Bush campaign was seriously considering doing so in 2000 demonstrates how forcefully and how long the GOP has rejected democratic norms.
The good news is that in Trump the GOP has nominated such a disastrous candidate that he can make whatever contingency plans he wants, and it won’t matter.