Why Americans campaigning for Joe Biden are worried

This election is not going to be anything like Bush and Gore in 2000

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden waves to journalists before boarding his campaign plane ahead of a trip to North Carolina, at the New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware, U.S., October 18, 2020.  REUTERS/Tom Brenner     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Powered by automated translation

Al Gore is a politician whose reputation after he left mainstream politics actually improved. He is best known now for environmental activism in his films and publications on climate change. But while he was US Vice President during the Clinton years, comedians joked that the difference between Gore and a coffee table was that "he was the wooden one."

On one occasion, when I was supposed to interview former US president Bill Clinton, White House staff called to say that a death in Mr Clinton’s family meant he had to return to Arkansas, but vice president Gore would do the interview instead. My heart sank.

Al Gore is smart and likeable but he was not an interesting interviewee. When I turned up for the interview in the White House Roosevelt Room, Mr Gore arrived carrying Socks, the Clinton cat. He put Socks on my lap and laughed: “Here – that’s as close as you’re going to get to the Clinton Charisma today.”

We chatted for a while, but as soon as the camera turned on, the warm and witty vice president disappeared and – to be brutal – I would have had a better interview with the cat. But Mr Gore was – and is – a good man. He proved it in 2000 during the presidential election with George W Bush, when Americans ended with the closest election result in history. A few hundred votes in Florida determined the winner.

US President Bill Clinton steps over the family pet cat Socks as he returns to the White House in Washington 14 April 1994. (Photo by Paul J. RICHARDS / AFP)
US President Bill Clinton steps over the family pet cat Socks as he returns to the White House in Washington, 14 April 1994. Paul J Richards / AFP

Under the American system, invented in the days of the horse and cart, the president is not directly elected. That is why even though Hillary Clinton had more popular votes than Donald Trump, Mr Trump won more “Electoral College” votes from each state, and those votes decide the winner.

US President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore stand on the podium as they await the inauguration of US President-elect George W. Bush 20 January 2001 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/PAUL RICHARDS (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP)
Bill Clinton and Al Gore at the inauguration of US President-elect George W Bush, on 20 January 2001 in Washington, DC. Paul J Richards / AFP 

Florida in 2000 had a particularly antiquated voting system and Mr Bush and Mr Gore disagreed on who had won. In the bitter dispute over a recount the judgement went to the US Supreme Court and – to simplify complex constitutional, legal and practical questions – the court decided in favour of Mr Bush.

But the US Supreme Court was and is composed of political appointees, judges appointed for life by the president of the day. In 2000, the Supreme Court was seen as highly partisan. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute wrote in January 2001 that "Bush ultimately garnered the presidency when a sharply divided and transparently political Supreme Court ended the manual recount in Florida that might have produced a different outcome."

The White House is seen as the sun sets in Washington, DC on February 8, 2019. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
The White House, Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan / AFP
The US Supreme Court is seen on the first day of a new term in Washington, DC, October 7, 2019. - In the film "12 Angry Men," a teen defendant is found not guilty of killing his father because the jurors cannot reach a unanimous decision. In reality, a split jury is enough in some US states. It is this issue that the US Supreme Court will take up Monday when it opens its new session -- a term that will feature a variety of blockbuster cases on abortion, immigration and transgender rights. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)
The US Supreme Court, in Washington, DC. Saul Loeb/ AFP

Al Gore did what was best for the US and conceded, even though it was probably not the best thing for Al Gore. A few hundred dodgy votes decided the fate of 300 million people, while many scholars and journalists suspected a fair recount would have given Gore Florida – and the presidency.

You can guess why I'm reminiscing. When I attended George W Bush's Inauguration in January 2001 as he took the oath of office I wondered about one of the great "what ifs" of history. What if Al Gore had simply said "The Supreme Court is partisan. The election was stolen by Republicans. It is unfair and I do not accept that Bush won." Al Gore would never do such a thing. But Donald Trump might. Mr Trump is a Rino – Republican In Name Only. He has no "ideology" beyond what is best for Donald Trump.

And that is why Americans campaigning for Joe Biden are worried despite the opinion polls showing Mr Biden coasting to victory. Mr Biden needs a big turnout, and a massive and overwhelming victory.

Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (R) and US President Donald Trump take part in the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Joe Biden (R) and Donald Trump take part in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29. Saul Loeb / AFP

Even if Mr Biden is ahead by 10 per cent in the popular vote in November, if Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan or some other state were to appear neck and neck, there could be trouble. Postal votes, in the antiquated US system, take a long time to count, and many observers believe they will favour Mr Biden.

So imagine if a few hours after polls close Mr Trump is ahead in the early vote tallies in key states before millions of postal votes are counted. He declares victory, prematurely and wrongly, and claims that postal votes are contaminated or illegitimate. Another legal wrangle ensues. It ends up in a Supreme Court packed with Republican-nominated judges, including Mr Trump's new nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Supporters of Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett show their support outside the Supreme Court on October 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. Demonstrators and supporters took to the streets in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and to protest President Donald Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the November election.   Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP
Supporters of Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett show their support outside the Supreme Court on 17 October, in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP

She claimed in 2016 that Barack Obama should not nominate a new Supreme Court judge in an election year but miraculously in 2020 she herself is delighted to be nominated by Donald Trump, in – yes – an election year. America is far more divided now than it was in 2000 and Joe Biden is not going to let a man he sees as the worst president in living memory steal the presidency from him. Mr Trump is used to telling people “you’re fired.”

American voters will need to vote out Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers to be sure that the Trump years do not end in a damaging and bitter constitutional wrangle.

Moreover, some Democrats have urged Mr Biden if he is elected, to expand the Supreme Court from nine to 15 members, with his own appointees. The 2020 election could change America for generations to come.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National