With each twist and turn in this extraordinary election saga, commentators have marveled at the public’s patience with the uncertainty and wondered when it would run out. The simple fact is that most Americans have been tolerant and temperate for the same reason that the election was so close in the first place. George W. Bush vs. Al Gore is not a compelling choice, except to the strong partisans among us. At the same time, the public is not indifferent to the outcome of the election, as TV news ratings and opinion surveys show.
Americans recognize the importance of what’s happening in Florida but are not ready to take to the streets over it. So far, polling has found Americans willing to embrace either outcome of the election and to accept the inevitable ambiguities. A Gallup poll several days ago, when the legal maneuvering was already well underway, found 79 percent of respondents believing it impossible for the Florida recount to be completely accurate, yet 8 out of 10 said they would accept either candidate as the legitimate winner of the election. An ABC-Washington Post survey conducted a week earlier found nearly 7 out of 10 saying that no matter which man lost the recount, the loser shouldn’t challenge it, even if the loser thought the voting was not entirely fair.
While voters want as much fairness as possible, their willingness to accept a less than perfect outcome reflects both a realism about the way we run elections and a lack of passion about either candidate.
On Election Day a Voter News Service exit poll found few voters saying they would be excited if Mr. Bush were elected (21 percent) and even fewer if saying they would be if Mr. Gore won (17 percent). Similarly, a small percentage of voters said they would be scared by a victory for either man — 26 percent if Mr. Bush won and 23 percent if the winner was Mr. Gore.
Further, there are few deep divisions in the electorate that might boil over as a result of the outcome of this particular election. Longstanding underlying partisan and ideological fault lines were evident when on Nov. 7, Republicans went for Mr. Bush and Democrats for Mr. Gore, while independents were divided evenly between the two. But there was little rancor. A post-election survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found fewer people than in previous elections saying their votes were against one candidate rather than for the other. This is good news for the prospect of the public getting behind the next president, but there are caveats.
First, the public has so far seemed ready to go along with a court-influenced determination of the fairest possible recount of the votes in Florida. But
whether citizens will accept a series of legal challenges once the Florida vote is certified is an open question. Polls taken by Pew and by ABC and The Washington Post in the first week of the Florida recount found two-thirds majorities saying that the candidates should not challenge the recount once it had been completed. The sharp rise in partisan acrimony since then could be changing opinions.
Moreover, Americans would be likely to have an even more unfavorable reaction if the Florida legislature or the Congress were to end up deciding the outcome of the election. With a 40 percent approval rating for Congressional leaders and public antipathy toward Washington partisanship, a settlement brokered in Congress, or even in the Florida Legislature, might spark a highly negative reaction.
A third consideration is that sizable partisan minorities would be displeased with either winner. And it’s the views of the vocal minorities that can elevate partisan warfare in Washington. This could easily sour general public opinion early in the new president’s term.
The question then becomes how to make the most of the public’s tolerance. Put another way, is it inevitable that the public’s acceptance of the new president will be drowned out by shrill partisan voices?