Republicans need Karl Rove now more than ever.
Despite conservative talkers urging Karl Rove to exit stage left, Republicans desperately need Rove. Not Rove the political prognosticator who predicted Mitt Romney would win comfortably, but Rove the strategist who put together the winning campaigns of 2000 and 2004.
The Republican campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were abysmal. Yes, they had some obstacles to overcome, but their efforts failed to follow even the most basic fundamentals of campaigning.
While Democrats detest Rove because of his “dirty” attacks, it is worth taking a second look at his strategy. Rove succeeded in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns by defining his opponents on his terms – not exactly the easiest thing to do in an unfriendly media environment – and by directly attacking their perceived strengths.
Al Gore prided himself on his intellect so the Bush campaign developed a narrative that Gore was stiff, awkward, and condescending. These themes were reinforced by Gore himself because they were rooted in some truth. As a result, Gore the intellectual became Gore the stuffy professor. This line of attacked ultimately provided Bush with a significant likeability edge on Election Day.
In 2004, the Bush campaign defined John Kerry as a flip-flopping elitist. The campaign ad “Windsurfing” captured both themes perfectly. Later in the campaign, when Kerry tried to tout his Vietnam experience, the campaign was ready to fight back with controversial information that undermined Kerry’s military service. They used the narrative that Kerry was inconsistent on issues repeatedly and managed to bring everything back to that point. Each attack reinforced the primary theme that Kerry was wobbly on his positions.
Four years later, then Senator Obama’s chosen narrative was that he was a Washington D.C. outsider who would bring needed change to government. John McCain and Hillary Clinton reinforced Obama’s narrative by claiming that he hadn’t been in Washington long enough to be President. Obama’s claim to be a pristine outsider should not have gone unchallenged.
A campaign that claimed Obama was just another politician could have used a number of scenarios to reinforce this theme. For example, Obama sat under Jeremiah Wright for 20 years. A racist as Glenn Beck claimed? No, just political ambition keeping him in the pew. Obama gets a favorable deal on his house from Tony Rezko. Corruption? No, just another political insider getting an insider deal. Obama has a coffee hosted by Bill Ayers. Palling around with terrorists? No, just a typical politician who will rub elbows with anyone willing to write a check. Obama goes back on his word to accept public campaign funding. A liar? Not so harsh. He’s just a run-of-the-mill politician who will abandon his principles for political gain.
This campaign would have been devastating The narrative would have been credible with the public and even the media while reinforcing itself consistently throughout the campaign. Despite difficulties imposed on McCain by the economic collapse and his Iraq position, voters would have been much less likely to see Obama as the agent of change.
Republicans had a similar opportunity in 2012. Mitt Romney’s early assessment that President Obama was a nice guy who was in over his head could have been a winning campaign theme. The incompetence narrative would have been a powerful one for Republicans. The waste in the stimulus? Incompetence. Solyndra? Incompetence. Sending 2,000 guns across the border without tracking them or notifying the Mexican government? Incompetence. The failed negotiations over the debt ceiling? Incompetence. By the time Benghazi came along it would have been the cherry on top of the incompetence sundae. No need to reach for conspiracy theories.
Instead of building a strong narrative from the bottom up as Rove did for the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004, Republicans tried to hit a home run on every pitch. I doubt most voters in hindsight can even recall the McCain and Romney arguments against Obama.
While Rove built strong narratives for his candidate and against his opponent, he was also influential in using the GOP’s Voter Vault, which was one of the first micro- targeting tools. Additionally, Rove expanded the electoral map in 2000 and 2004. Besides the usual battleground states, Bush was competitive in Oregon, Washington (2000), Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, while keeping respectable margins in deep blue states like Delaware, New Jersey, and Hawaii. Even Vermont was only a 10-point race in 2000. McCain and Romney played very narrow fields and were left with few paths to victory late in their campaigns.
Republicans may currently have demographic and issue struggles, but they have exacerbated these problems by straying from fundamental campaigning. Weak, conspiratorial attacks and poor campaign tactics will not win elections against well- funded well-organized opponents. Rove’s strength was fundamentals. The GOP must return to these fundamentals immediately if they wish to regain power.