Rove's strategy pays off with four more years

Bush adviser's planning leads GOP closer to durable majority

By Dan Balz and Mike Allen

November 7, 2004

As Air Force One made its final approach to Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon, White House senior adviser Karl Rove juggled a telephone, a pen and a piece of paper, anxiously copying down the first wave of exit polls that showed President Bush trailing John F. Kerry.

"I saw this look on his face and then the phone died," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. "He said, 'Not good.' " It was, Bartlett added, "like a punch in the gut."

At that point, years of planning and preparation appeared in doubt. Skeptics in the Democratic and Republican parties believed the strategy created by Rove and the rest of Bush's team was about to come crashing down.

Had that happened, it would have put Bush in the history books with his father for having been denied a second term after achieving a 90 percent approval rating, and relegated Rove to the long list of strategists whose theories and assumptions have been undone by the voters.

"I was sick," Rove said in an interview as he talked about those moments on the president's plane. "But then angry when I started seeing the numbers. None of them made any sense."

Those exit polls, of course, turned out to be wrong, as many inside the Bush headquarters believed once they began to examine them in detail, and today Rove is celebrated by none other than the president as "the architect" of the reelection victory.

Admired, disparaged, respected and feared, Rove joins an elite cadre of political strategists who can claim two presidential victories. Bush's adviser can now look toward the goal he has pursued since he was an obscure direct-mail specialist in Texas: the creation of a durable Republican majority in Washington and across the country.

Building the base, bit by bit
The reelection strategy was built on the belief that with U.S. forces in Iraq, the outcome there uncertain, and fighting terrorism still at the forefront of Bush's presidency, Bush had to shape and win the debate on national security and still contend with Democratic criticism that he had ignored domestic problems.

It was also designed around a plan to increase members of the electorate calling themselves Republicans. This has been described as a strategy aimed almost exclusively at energizing and mobilizing the GOP's conservative base. While social and religious conservatives played a significant role in the outcome, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Bush's advisers also believed they could simultaneously "reach out to and expand the base and expand support among ticket-splitting swing voters."

John Weaver, a strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who ended a longtime feud with Rove this year when Bush sought McCain's help, said Rove has moved closer to the goal of creating a Republican majority not by seeking one big realigning election, but by recognizing that political change often is incremental and using every election to get a little bit closer.

"He gets three feet here, three feet there, constantly eroding the other side and grabbing turf," Weaver said. "He has proved his point that you can expand the base, and not just among white males, without drifting or modifying either language or policy. I'm not sure it would work with any other candidate, at any other time. But it worked, and he proved the skeptics wrong."

Rove's assessment is that the 2004 election pushed the country away from deadlock, where it had come to rest after the disputed election four years ago. "We now clearly are not the country that was 49-49," he said. "We're now at 51-48 and may be trending to 51-47. It is incremental but small, persistent change. We saw it in 2002, and we saw it again this year. ... It tells me we may be seeing part of a rolling realignment."

Team effort
Bush's victory is likely to enlarge the myth of Rove, with all its layers and complexities, but the reality is that Bush's reelection was secured not by the design or execution of a single person but by a team.

That team included Mehlman, who executed the game plan with an extraordinary grasp of attention to detail, and chief strategist Matthew Dowd, who provided a stream of research on the state of the electorate that kept pessimists at bay and the campaign focused on the big picture rather than, as one insider put it, "chasing rabbits." Long ago, Dowd predicted a victory margin of close to three percentage points.

Others who played significant roles were Bartlett, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish, media adviser Mark McKinnon, rapid response chief Steve Schmidt, political director Terry Nelson, vice presidential advisers I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Mary Matalin, and presidential confidante Karen Hughes. Many were regular members of a breakfast group at Rove's house where strategy was developed and great quantities of cholesterol consumed.

No small part of the credit, of course, goes to the president, the point man on the campaign trail and, Rove says, the one who established the broad outlines of the reelection strategy during a meeting with his chief adviser in December 2002 at his Texas ranch. The president also continually prodded his team to keep the pressure on Kerry throughout the campaign.

Broadband strategist
Rove, who turns 54 at the end of the year, has a 30-year friendship and an unbreakable bond with Bush, the two having first met the day before Thanksgiving 1973. Their history put Rove at the center of the operation, serving as the link between the campaign and the White House and between the campaign advisers and the occupant of the Oval Office.

McKinnon once described Rove, in language of the Internet age, as having "more bandwidth" than any political strategist he had ever worked with, able to juggle many balls and capable of thinking strategically while never losing sight of, or interest in, tracking polls, voter registration data or the details of Kerry's health care plan.

After the president's victory, Rove earned praise even from some of those he bested. One Kerry adviser said: "I think Rove is an incredibly bright and effective and capable guy, and they clearly won. The last guy they need lessons from is me, who lost."

But another Democrat, still digesting a loss that seemed unlikely to Democrats when they first saw the exit polls, called him one of the meanest people in politics. Said Rove: "This is a town that runs on myths. That's one of the myths. The evil Rasputin Rove. There's nothing I can do about it. If you want to rage against the system, blame Rove."

Still, no one suggests that Rove does not play as hard as anyone around. GOP strategists have felt the Rove lash when they were perceived as straying in public from 100 percent support of the president, making them far less willing to talk openly about what they saw as problems with the strategy when the race was in doubt.

But those in the campaign said outsiders rarely see Rove in full, someone they say is generous in giving others credit, willing to listen to ideas and act on them, a cheerleader in times of trouble, able to accept mistakes and move on, and a man with a slightly goofy side.

Reporters traveling with Bush saw that goofy side in the waning days of the campaign. He popped into the press cabin one night wearing a surgical mask. "Dr. Rove is here," he announced. On Halloween night, Rove was among the most gleeful of Bush's senior staff members as they donned camouflage jackets and paraded down the front steps of Air Force One for cameras to poke fun at Kerry's duck-hunting foray.

Targeted GOP Recruitment
Rove said that when he and Bush first talked about a reelection strategy in December 2002, the president, anticipating a race that resembled 2000 in its closeness, laid out a series of requests. He wanted a strategy designed to enlarge GOP majorities in the House and Senate, not what he called a "lonely victory." He wanted more emphasis on grass-roots volunteers. And he told Rove he wanted a campaign about big things and big issues, not "mini ball," and finally said he wanted to leave the Republican Party "stronger, broader and better."

Democrats and others often described Bush's strategy as one designed primarily to energize and mobilize the GOP's conservative base, but Gillespie said, "You had to have energy in your base, but your base doesn't get you to 51 percent."

Mehlman noted that Bush increased his support among various groups: women, Roman Catholics, Latinos (although some people question the accuracy of the exit polls showing Bush with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote). Even among black voters, Bush increased his support by two percentage points.

Bush's advisers said one key to victory was the early decision to change the composition of the electorate by finding and registering more Republicans. "When I went to the RNC in July [2003], I asked Karl what was the most important thing I could do, and he said, 'Close the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats,' " Gillespie said. "We registered 3.4 million voters."

Targeting the faithful
Bush's team did not go about this randomly. With considerable assistance from Dowd's research, the Bush operation sniffed out potential voters with precision-guided accuracy, particularly in fast-growing counties beyond the first ring of suburbs of major cities. The campaign used computer models and demographic files to locate probable GOP voters. "They looked at what they read, what they watch, what they spend money on," a party official said.

Once those people were identified, the RNC sought to register them, and the campaign used phone calls, mail and front-porch visits all with a message emphasizing the issues about which they cared most to encourage them to turn out for Bush. "We got a homogeneous group of new registered voters and stayed on them like dogs," another official said.

That combination careful identification of potential Bush voters and continuing contact with the help of a volunteer army that Mehlman said numbered 1.4 million people by Election Day helped Bush overcome what Democrats regard as their best-ever get-out-the-vote operation.

Many Democrats have seized on exit polls showing that 22 percent of voters said "moral values" were most important to them as evidence of what brought Bush the victory. But Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, in an analysis released yesterday, said he disagrees, noting that Bush had increased his support among nonregular churchgoers more than among churchgoers. "To focus on values misses the crucial point that this was the post-9/11 election, and the war on terror set the stage and the context for the choices many voters were making," Garin wrote.

'Where real power is'
Rove declined to speculate on his next act. He is happily married, dotes on his teenage son and loves Texas. "I serve at the sufferance of the president and with the approval of my wife," he said.

But those around him expect he will stay at Bush's side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. "Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that's where real power is exercised in a White House," said a Republican official who works closely with him.

There are still many who question the Bush-Rove strategy, even after the latest success. They say Bush's style of governing from the right, with policies that push the conservative edge of the envelope, puts a ceiling on his and his party's ability to expand significantly more. Others say the Bush model will not survive after he leaves the presidency.

But some of those doubters are chastened by what happened Tuesday. The night before the election, one strategist, who asked for anonymity to be free with his opinions, predicted a Kerry victory. "It's a dumb plan," he said of the Bush campaign strategy. By midnight of election night, as first Florida fell to Bush and then his margin in Ohio mounted, another message arrived. It said, "On second thought ..."