15 January 2005

The closest Governor's race in our nation's history ended not with a bang, but with a whimper this week. For that, we can credit the blunders of the Republican, Dino Rossi, who (in my view) dramatically mishandled the politics of the recount.

Recounts burst onto the scene in Florida in 2000, and they look to me like they're here to stay. All political operators would be wise to learn the recount fundamentals. Recount strategies were decisive in this race, as well as the 2000 race and the recent Ukrainian presidential race. Here is my incomplete list of recount rules that all candidates would be wise to follow:

1) Keep the base energized. Bigger crowds usually win. This happened in Florida, where Bush flew Republican operatives from around the country to participate in disingenuous "protests" in Florida, and they stole the headlines. This weakened the will of mainstream Americans to support continued uncertainty in the outcome. Likewise, Yushenko won because he brought the Ukrainian government to its knees with his protests. Government officials risked losing legitimacy or worse if they did not acknowledge the wishes of the mob. On this count, Dino Rossi hasn't done badly; my understanding is that he has used talk radio to fan the flames on the right. But he's stumbled on rules 2) and 3), below.

2) Have a concrete, simple demand. This puts you in a much stronger bargaining position, and gives your supporters something to fight for. Rossi had nothing concrete; he whined about there being a recount at all (which also violates rule 3)) and then whined about vague "inconsistencies" when he lost. He kept threatening to ask for something concrete, but kept delaying, and some of the stuff he asked for (including a revote on the basis of there being a statistical tie) was wildly unrealistic and, for lack of a better word, stupid. Rossi still has stuff pending in court, but he's already lost; Gregoire was sworn in and is now governing the state. There's not a court in the country willing to pull the brakes on the state government after everyone has gone back to work, unless there was horribly obvious criminal activity. Bush won on this count in 2000 with a simple argument: stop the recount, period. Gore twisted in the wind trying to explain why we should recount some counties and not others, and why we shouldn't count overseas military votes. Similarly, Yanukovich could only muster vague threats and bluster, while Yushenko asked for one thing only: a revote.

3) Keep your arguments logically consistent. Rossi stumbled by first arguing that there had been no inconsistencies in the voting so no recount was necessary, and then arguing that there must have been all sorts of Democratic shenanigans. You can't have it both ways. This hurt Gore as well when he had to explain why he only asked for recounts in some counties. Gregoire had a potential pitfall when she focused only on including discarded ballots in King County, but she survived because she argued that she was just bringing King County in line with the rest of the state.

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