Danforth came from an era when political norms dictated a culture of deference to announced electoral outcomes. (Richard Nixon, reflecting these values, chose not to challenge the results of his narrow defeat in 1960.) Baker thanked Danforth for his time and proceeded to file that lawsuit and several others, mobilizing the Republican Party behind the efforts for the George Bush–Dick Cheney ticket. There were street protests outside the Vice-President’s mansion (“Get out of Cheney’s house!”), and a deployment of the finest political and legal talent in the Republican Party. Many of the lawyers working on the recount cases, far from suffering damage to their careers, were guaranteed political futures—they included John G. Roberts, Jr., whom Bush appointed to the Supreme Court, and Noel Francisco, who became President Trump’s Solicitor General.
To the frustration of countless Democrats, Gore took a high-minded, traditional approach, asserting that the recount was a legal, not a political, process, and directing his supporters to stay off the streets. (Gore told the Reverend Jesse Jackson to call off protests that he had organized against the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Florida.) In this spirit, Gore named the diplomat Warren Christopher, rather than a pol, to lead his recount efforts, and relied on a talented but small group of lawyers in Florida, who struggled to keep up with Republican reinforcements from around the country. The contrasts were cultural in addition to being substantive. David Boies, Gore’s lead lawyer toward the end of the process, promenaded along the broad plazas of Tallahassee, bantering cheerfully with reporters and passersby. Benjamin Ginsberg, the general counsel to the Bush campaign and the dean of Republican election lawyers, paced the streets in a state of rage. “They are trying to steal this,” Ginsberg said repeatedly, of the Democrats, color rising to the top of his bald head. In the end, Bush’s resort to the courts proved to be his salvation. In the case known as Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, held that the recounts violated Bush’s rights, thus sealing his victory in Florida.
Ultimately, George Bush was declared the winner in Florida by five hundred and thirty-seven votes, out of some six million cast. The result might have been the same if Gore had chosen a more assertive strategy, but the parties’ contrasting approaches—Republican aggression versus Democratic restraint—remain a crucial legacy of the contest. That year, the recount struggle came as a surprise to both candidates. This year, each side has mustered for a legal fight that began months ago and may well continue long after November 3rd. President Trump has ratcheted up the Bush strategy of total political warfare: he has already refused to commit to accepting the outcome of the election. “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged—remember that,” he said recently. “So we have to be very careful. . . . The only way they’re going to win is that way. And we can’t let that happen.”