Incumbent Democratic President Josiah Bartlet of New Hampshire defeated Republican Governor Robert Ritchie of Florida with a 423-115 electoral college victory and by over ten million votes in the popular vote.
Incumbent Vice President John Hoynes of Texas was renominated as President Bartlet's running mate. Before the election there had been talk of replacing Hoynes on the ticket, due to opinion polls that reflected that Governor Ritchie's candidacy would deny the Bartlet/Hoynes ticket the South, particularly Texas, Georgia and Florida, two of three states which Bartlet had won four years before, and delivered him victory. Campaign staff briefly considered choosing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Percy Fitzwallace as a replacement VP candidate, due to his reputation as a Vietnam veteran and a defense hawk and due to the calculation that a black running mate would increase black turnout and deliver Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina to a Bartlet/Fitzwallace ticket. White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry was also mentioned as a possibility (foreshadwing his eventual selection as Matt Santos' running mate in 2006). But there was a concern that Hoynes being rejected from the ticket might lead to him declaring a third-party candidacy, thereby acting as a spoiler and throwing the election to Ritchie, although Hoynes himself was supportive of the decision to reconsider his position on the ticket. Ultimately, Bartlet himself vetoed the moves, making it clear he wanted Hoynes by writing four words on a piece of paper: "Because I could die."
A politician named Simon was believed to be the favourite at the start of the primary campaign. But it was two-term Governor Robert Ritchie of Florida, who was believed to be the outsider at the start of the race, who came through and won the nomination. Helped by a shock win in the Iowa caucus, and as other candidates dropped out, Ritchie had the race won just after Super Tuesday. Ritchie picked Jeff Hestin as his running mate.
During the campaign White House staffers repeatedly expressed concerns that Bartlet appeared aloof and out of touch with ordinary Americans. When Josh Lyman, Toby Zeigler and Donna Moss are left behind by the presidential motorcade in Indiana, they become acutely aware, as they attempt to get public transport back to Washington, that the concerns of ordinary voters were not being represented in the campaign. This led the campaign to take a more cautious approach when responding to allegations of elitism on the part of the first lady and when preparing the President for the debate. This also eventually leads to Bartlet’s tax deductible tuition initiative.
Ritchie was known for a folksy, down-to-earth style and a simplistic manner of speaking with which he was able to communicate with people, in contrast to the intellectualism of President Bartlet. Bartlet for a time attempted to emulate this behaviour before his advisor Toby Ziegler convinced him to stop, a strategy that ultimately contributed to the result.
The Ritchie campaign agreed to only two debates, while the Bartlet camp wanted five. A decision was handed down that there would be two debates using rules that President Bartlet felt did not allow for true debate. Bartlet wanted real discussion in the debate, so he traded down to a single debate in exchange for effective debate rules that allowed him to engage Ritchie. The debate, held at University of California, San Diego on Wednesday, October 23, 2002, resulted in an overwhelming victory for the President. When Governor Ritchie criticised the federal government superseding the states, President Bartlet replied by saying Florida had taken $12.6 billion from the federal government, and cheekily asked "Can we have it back, please?"
So impressive were the President's debating skills that even Ritchie himself admitted defeat. In the post-debate handshake, Ritchie whispered "It's over," to Bartlet, who replied "You'll be back."
One race that received particular attention was the race in California's 47th District, a traditional Republican stronghold where staunchly conservative six term Republican incumbent Chuck Webb was narrowly defeated (53,722 to 53,610 or 50.05% to 49.95%) by the deceased Democratic candidate Horton Wilde. Although in the resulting special election in early 2003, in which White House Deputy Communications Director and Orange County native Sam Seaborn ran against Webb, the result of the race is never made clear.
However, overall the Republicans still retained control of both Houses, which angered Congressional Democrats and led them to call Bartlet's victory "the lonely landslide." In the episode "Ways and Means" (which takes place in 2001), the Republicans had 226-209 (nine seat) house majority. In "Jefferson Lives" (which takes place in July 2003), the Republicans had a house majority of four seats (221-214), so the Democrats seemingly made a net gain of five seats in the House elections.