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In real life, United States presidential elections are held every four years. The first was held in 1788 (roughly) and as such the elections of recent times have been held in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.

However, in The West Wing's President Bartlet was elected in 1998, and subsequent presidential elections depicted in the show take place in 2002 and 2006.

The obvious out-of-universe explanation is that Sorkin wanted the show to take place in (then) current day, and wanted Bartlet to be in the early part of his term at the beginning of the show. The show debuted in 1999, so it obviously wouldn't fit if he was elected in 1996 or 2000.

Has an in-universe explanation ever been given? I'm in the middle of Season 4, and the most recent real-life president I've heard mentioned was Richard Nixon. Did the Nixon presidency end differently than in real life, somehow prompting a constitutional change that shifted presidential elections by two years? Or was the first presidential election shifted by two years from real life in the show's continuity? Or did the writers just sweep this under the rug and never address it?

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I don't recall a year ever being spoken during the entire series. As you said, the show begins after Bartlett has been in office for about a year but it never states which year. Present-day doesn't necessarily mean this week.

The only time they try to match reality is 3x00 and even the disclaimer at the beginning doesn't outright say it's 2001.

  • The biggest evidence I ever saw was that in Season 1, Episode 6 ("Mr. Willis of Ohio"), several characters are in a bar, and the Foo Fighters song "Learn to Fly" is playing in the background. That song was released in 1999, so the scene couldn't have taken place any earlier than that. – Justin Lardinois Dec 28 '14 at 20:22
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    There are some indicators of the year at various times, e.g. at one point we see C.J.'s email inbox and the dates are all 2002, but there was indeed some effort to obfuscate the actual years the series took place in. – BCdotWEB Dec 29 '14 at 9:59
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    @JustinLardinois: How do you know the song was released in 1999 in the West Wing universe? – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 1 '16 at 21:27
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There's no in-universe explanation and it's just part of the issues of making a show about a fictitious alternate universe that's very similar to ours.

And it's not as if they never state what year it is since in the Christmas-timed episode "In Excelsis Deo" (1x10) there's that argument between Josh and Donna as to whether or not the upcoming New Year's Eve leading into the year 2000 constitutes a new millennium or not.

My guess would be the practical reasoning was that the show started in 1999, they wanted to do a sort of "in medias res" thing and have the show start a year into the first term of the Bartlet administration and they didn't want to turn right around in Season 2 and do a re-election thing until we knew the characters better (plus there was the whole MS subplot to deal with).

So while Nixon is the most recent real-life president mentioned, there's tons of other ways in which the show just pretends like nothing's unusual. Major characters disappear with no explanation (Mandy, Ainsley, etc. - Lionel Tribbey was one I was particularly disappointed we never saw more than once) because it's perfectly plausible that staff comes and goes during an administration. The election is in the year 2002 because that's just how it is.

And consider how this became an issue in the third season in particular when half the episodes were in the can and ready to go and then 9/11 happened. Suddenly it's really weird because The West Wing is dealing with politics and real life concerns but it takes place in a world where 9/11 never occurred. Some people thought "Issac and Ishmael" (3x00) was going to give us a 9/11 style incident but it didn't, it was basically Sorkin wanting to vent about some things. But you'll notice about halfway through Season 3 is when the tone starts to change and they start introducing plots dealing with terrorism (see Toby's "They'll like us when we win" speech in 3x14) and culminating in a Bin Laden style figure being assassinated at the end.

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