Historical: Rove 2004 Base Strategy
Historical: Rove 2004 Base Strategy
Karl Rove, ‘The Architect’, was Chief Strategist in President Bush’s successful 2000 and 2004 campaign.
The Rove team shifted its entire Bush campaign strategy from 2000. In 2004, Rove outlined a plan with a focus placed on the importance of “metrics” or benchmarks, deploying a methodical effort to grow the electorate in a way that set out to close the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats. These “sophisticated metrics” allowed the Rove team to immediately know that the early 2004 exit polls, which showed John Kerry winning, were wrong.
In 2004, 37% of voters were Democrats, and 37% were Republican, which left 26% Independent or Unaffiliated. Kerry won the Independents by a slim margin. So how did Bush win by 3%? Nearly twice as many Democrats voted for Bush – as did Republicans for Kerry. Karl Rove was able to capture a larger proportion of the electorate and support among Republicans – and among conservatives; over 90% in fact, larger than Reagan in ’84.
“Compassionate conservatism” was the notion that brought Bush to power the first time around, and it was almost the opposite the second time around. Forget about the ‘compassionate conservatism’; this was a pure and simple play to the Republican conservative base and enfranchising ‘lazy Republicans”. Resources shifted, as base motivation was now as important as swing persuasion.
Rove and his team identified precincts, counties, and other political subdivisions that could be relied upon to deliver high percentages of support to the president but that also had high numbers of undependable voters — that is, people who couldn’t be counted on to go to the polls. A precinct might be expected to give Bush or any Republican at least 60% of the vote, for example, but only 300 of the 500 registered voters in that precinct usually voted in presidential elections.
If the campaign could ramp up the anticipated turnout from 300 to 400 or more by pouring in money for data-mining and targeted communications it could maximize its votes on Election Day. It was an ideologically-driven, base-driven approach. Bush’s approval rating, per Gallup, never dipped below 47% and his disapproval never rose above 51% in 2004, steadying out at 48-47% right before the election.
The goal was to capture an equal number of Republicans on Election Day as Democrats; if they were successful, the Rove team felt they would win the election, no matter what happened among the shrinking persuadable voters which had dwindled from 20% to 7% in their analysis. The Christian Coalition was bypassed in favor of going directly to local Christian churches. This had never been done before.
Four million evangelicals had gone to the polls for Bush in 2000 but four million did not. The mobilization of individual churches resulted in evangelicals not only coming on board, but campaigning, volunteering at polls, canvassing and working the phone banks. With base motivation as important as swing; all decisions influenced every Rove decision; targeted mail, phones, media, travel, organization, staff – all focused on the base.
Roves methodology; utilizing benchmarks or ‘metrics’ enabled him on election day 2004 to realize before anyone else did – that Bush would win. In 2001, Rove set out to enlarge the electorate by consolidating rural votes through new voter registrations programs and target its reach of traditional Republicans. “Metrics” showed true swing voters, the persuadable middle electorate, was only 7%.
Along the way, they discovered that 85% of Republicans did not live in Republicans precincts; only 15% did. Sophisticated analysis of what magazines people read, brand of cars they owned, where they lived; a combination of what issues they were interested in were gathered, analyzed, scrubbed and put into a central data bank.
The Rove team zeroed in on those with hunting licenses, Field & Stream subscriptions, and minivans, as opposed to Volvo owners and PETA contributors. If somebody received Field and Stream, it was learned that they were much more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter. If someone got Rolling Stone, they’re much more likely to be a Democratic voter. Somebody that watched CSI was much more likely to be a Republican versus someone that watched soap’s during the day.
People who drank Coors beer, had Caller ID and watched Fox News, when aggregated, all tended to be Republicans, and so on. Once they identified their target constituencies they then aggregated every possible technique to discover how actually to get those people to vote through paid phone banks, messaging and canvassing. The ’01 and ’02 elections tested theories and tactics.
Analysis showed persuadable voters in the last 20 years had gone from 22% of the electorate to 7% in ’04. While Rove’s team fought to do fairly well among the 6-7% persuadable, (analysis showed 93 or 94% were either for Bush or against) they felt they could lose the 6 or 7% and still win the election, with an energized base. Revolutionary, considering the historical perspective and focus on swing voters.
In the end, the Rove team also figured out ways to go into the Democratic base and peel away votes. Along the way, their messaging became more effective at targeting and getting swing voters – the moderates and independents – and conservatives increased their participation level as a proportion of the electorate.
The Rove team improved performance among people that lived in big cities by 13 points, from 26 to 39%; African Americans by 1.5%, Jewish Americans by 5%; hispanics by 9% and even women went up. Across the political spectrum, they not only appealed to the red areas, but made them redder while also turning blue areas purple.
Their model was a bottom-up structure, a grassroots structure designed to bring more people into the party, enfranchise more naturally Republican voters and increase percentage in non-traditional Republican voting demographics. But with base motivation now as important as swing, they reevaluated their mix of putting 80% of their resources into persuasion and only 20% into base motivation.
The speeches that Bush gave leading up to the 9/11 date re-engaged the base and raised his overall approval rating to around 40%. He shifted the debate back to his favored playing field: national security. In the eyes of the Bush team, the U.S. was a polarized country. Using entirely different strategies, Rove was able to adjust to what he saw as the predominant mood in the country.
What Rove attempted to shepherd in was a durable majority, not a permanent majority. Having just barely won in 2000 with 271 electorate votes, Bush took away 286 in 2004. By everything being aimed at the base of the evangelicals and the social fundamentalists, there was less effort to reach out to the persuadable independents.
Bush won by only a three-point margin – not an electoral landslide; Clinton was elected by 8, Reagan by 18, Nixon by 23. And, as we witnessed in 2008, the movement of a handful of states pushed the presidency back to the Democrats. Obama was elected by 7. In 2008, McCain lost over 7% of evangelicals and Obama did 10% better than Kerry with church-goers.
McCain too, lost 6.2 million more overall votes than Bush, and in Georgia, McCain barely mustered 7% to Bushes 19%. By a crushing 6 to 1 margin, those young who were polled said Obama, 47, understood “the problems of people our age” better than McCain, 72. To put in perspective, roughly a 7% shift in the voting electorate and John McCain would have been president.
Bush went into the ’04 election with consistent support among Republicans and among conservatives, over 90%, larger than anyone’s had since Ronald Reagan in ’84. Karl Rove conceived of an election that was designed to bring more people into our party and get them out to vote, and he did that that with a bottom-up structure, a grassroots structure. The Rove base-strategy worked.