Why Karl Rove and the GOP Establishment Will Lose Again
Karl Rove is at it once again. The so-called “strategist” is again confusing strategy with tactics, and is about to blow easy Senate pickups in Arkansas and North Carolina. This is not merely snatching defeat from the jaws of victory -- this is snatching defeat from the bowels of victory -- in astonishing tone-deaf fashion.
There is absolutely no excuse for not winning these two races.
So how is the one-time “boy genius” doing this? By running ads attacking Senators Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan from the left. Yes, you heard that right. Rove’s Crossroads GPS PAC is insisting in their latest ads in both states that Republican candidates Tom Cotton and Thom Tillis are better liberals than Pryor and Hagan, at least on Social Security. The ads attack Hagan and Pryor for wanting to raise the eligibility age for the defunct program.
Okay. So let’s somehow miss that Obama and Harry Reid are toxic associations in red states. Forget that ObamaCare is showing how big government liberalism is an abject failure. Forget that the VA scandal is showing the same thing. Forget that workforce participation is the lowest in history. Forget that the hated IRS has been outed as an arm of the Democrat party. Forget that deficits are at a record. Forget that the entire country is starting to recognize that our national nausea is almost always being caused by too much nanny-state liberalism.
Can’t mention those. No no. We have soccer mom focus group data that shows blah blah blah….
Rove and the GOP elite need to put down their pizzas and get out of the focus-group lab and into the real world a little bit. If they did, it might dawn on them to run a campaign of big ideas and overarching themes. You know, to tap into that anti-liberal anti-big government/nanny state mood? (No, that can’t work. I mean, those unapologetic big picture conservative campaigns fail every time -- you know, like in 1980, 84, 94, and 2010. And of course, the moderate fake right, go left, niche-by-niche strategies tried in 96, 98, 2006, 2008 and 2012 worked so well, right?)
So how does all of this self-evident history, not to mention a common sense understanding of human nature, escape all of the top Republican messaging sorcerers? One big factor is the isolated bubble that is Washington (and includes the New York media center). Precious little reality seeps into this bubble. Conservative columnist John Nolte even theorizes that the media is just as intent on shielding Washington Republicans from exposure to what’s really going on outside the beltway as they are to push their general liberal bias. He may have a point.
But there’s more.
Rove has the mind of a tactician, and a good one. He was a direct-mail guru for a long time before rising to prominence in the George W. Bush campaigns and administration. The problem is that he is now so involved with strategy -- and with the main thrust of messaging. Tactics and strategy are both necessary, but they are very different mindsets and skill sets. Strategy is a big picture right-brained enterprise. Tactics are a bureaucratic left-brained endeavor. The tactician Rove simply does not have the right mindset or skill set to be involved in ‘strategy’ messaging. It’s not who he is. No one is wired to do both.
Thus he runs broadcast campaigns the way he ran direct mail campaigns -- talk abortion over here, trade over there, and social security in another place. The problem is, when you broadcast niche issues, you are destroying your team’s ability to advance a big picture message. Rove is literally campaigning against the overwhelming national zeitgeist with his overresearched misunderstanding of what the tea leaves are saying.
You cannot win this way. It never works. Why would it? It makes no sense except to those who are so bogged down with the minutiae of focus-group research that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Focus groups and snapshot polls are the death of conservative campaigns. Conservatism cannot be understood within the confines of a two-hour focus group, nor can focus groups predict the reaction of voters to a multi-month long campaign of conservative messages in two hours either. Focus groups cannot possibly judge the impact of a long campaign message over time -- and yet, those who push this junk science use them for that express purpose. Rove is a big believer. We are big losers.
Consider: a focus group, by definition, tends toward emotional and big government solutions -- because it is a lowest common denominator pursuit due to the confines of time, peer pressure, and the participant selection process. You can’t even get into one of these groups until you can prove you are low information. Yet inspired by focus-group data, the Rove and GOP establishment-style campaigns continue to be shallow, niche-driven low-information campaigns. They are designed to make the low-information people think that our party joins them in their low-information opinions. I guess it never occurs to these wizards to use a campaign to educate voters and persuade them to join us? You know, like 80, 84, 94 and 2010? Google Reagan, Newt, and Tea Party for clarification.
Rove made a point to personally insult my book at a GOP convention in Charlotte in 2013, calling it a “poorly researched piece of trash.” My reply was that his 400-million-dollar ad campaign in 2012 was the poorly researched piece of trash. So are his campaigns this cycle too.
George W. Bush has called Rove both a “boy genius” and a “turd blossom.” I agree with Bush about 50% of the time, so I’ll go with the latter.
The author is a contributor to American Thinker and Newsmax TV, is author of Amazon bestseller WTF? How Karl Rove and the Establishment Lost…Again, and comments at www.cedmundwright.com.