If you were around in 2000 to watch Bush vs. Gore morph from an election night presidential contest into a Supreme Court battle that ultimately decided the presidency more than a month later, you may have forgotten how the technology of a decade and a half ago played into the confusion.
It was one of the things that struck CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, whose new documentary, Bush vs. Gore: The Endless Election, airs tonight at 9 p.m. on CNN.
Borger describes how presidential candidate Al Gore‘s “boiler room operation” tries unsuccessfully to reach Gore at a key moment on election night. “They look up at the TV screen, and they saw Gore’s motorcade go into the war memorial for his concession, and they frantically tried to reach the people in the motorcade but they couldn’t get through, because a lot of them had turned their pagers off,” she tells FishbowlDC.
Borger laughs at the mention of pagers. “The stunning lack of communication then vs. now, no Twitter, no social media, no texting, no nothing, the way that the campaign was in the dark–the right hand and the left hand–was striking to me, because we don’t think about that anymore.”
And though that election night and the 36 days that followed is something Borger’s interviewees would probably rather not think about, they opened up to her.
“When I started calling people like [Jim] Baker and Bill Daley and Joe Lieberman and all the rest, particularly the Democratic side, it’s not as if they jumped for joy and said, ‘oh yeah, I want to relive the worst time in my life.'”
But they did, with a level of openness that Borger owes in part to the passage of time.
“What I discovered in telling a story 15 years later is that people are strikingly candid. They’ve thought about it, they admit when they make mistakes, they do not spin.”
The mistakes of that night were not all political. The networks were largely criticized for prematurely calling the elections and for relying too heavily on projections and exit polls rather than real results, something Borger examines in the doc.
“As Tom Brokaw said, ‘We not only have egg all over our face, we have omelette all over our suits.’ I think that was a moment in which every body had to reflect and say, wait a minute. In our eagerness to get it first, we have to make sure we get it right and don’t let that overtake everything else.”
Networks changed how they covered elections in response, becoming more cautious in calling states and elections for candidate, but the influence of the networks, too, has changed in the past decade and a half.
“It was a different era in which people looked at the television networks and they were all saying that Bush had won Florida, so it must be so. We live in a different world now,” says Borger.
Campaigns changed their game as well.
“They look at their own numbers now,” says Borger. “What the campaigns have learned is that they are prepared for any eventuality. At this point on election night, these two teams were scrambling to get lawyers to go down to Florida. Now the lawyers are already in battleground states watching the polls. It kind of flipped everything.”
“Nothing before had ever been like that–well, maybe 1876–and nothing since. Thanks goodness,” she says.