Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]

how rove targeted the republican vote
Rove built an elaborate system for identifying the Republican vote. It centered on gathering extensive statistics on voters, refining and testing this data to predict the potential Republican votes, and then implementing a get-out the-vote strategy while constantly monitoring, measuring and testing it. This methodology, which the Bush campaign referred to as "metrics," enabled Rove on Election Day 2004 to realize before anyone else did that Bush would win -- even though exit polls said otherwise. Here, discussing Rove's methodology and offering stories about how it works, are Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager of Bush-Cheney '04; Matthew Dowd, chief campaign strategist for Bush-Cheney '04; and Washington Post reporters Thomas Edsall and Dan Balz.

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ken mehlman
Chairman, Republican National Committee (2005-present); campaign manager, Bush-Cheney 2004

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…You know, hope is not a strategy, and a lot of people who are in politics and business and elsewhere say, "We're doing this; we hope it works." Well, the question is, how do you know if it's working? And [Karl Rove] believes -- and I strongly believe, too -- in having benchmarks that you agree on up front that will tell you if it's working, and measuring those benchmarks on a regular basis. By measuring those benchmarks, you're in a place where you can know whether you're successful or not.

So the 2004 campaign did that for everything. We did it for raised dollars; we did it for voter registration; we did it for number of visits we wanted to make to different places around the country; we did it for polling; we did it for number of people who wanted to book on television. … That's known as metrics. …

I've read and heard about the idea that Rove and you and others sit there and look at what happened and how close it was in 2000. What was the Monday morning quarterbacking about what you knew you needed to do in order to not only get re-elected, but to do what you needed to do?

Well, a couple of things. One, we had made an unprecedented effort on behalf of grassroots in 2000, and we wanted to continue with that effort and to try to institutionalize that effort and improve that effort even more.

Secondly, we looked at the electorate, and we said, "What does it take to get to 51 percent, and where do we need to improve?" And we made a methodical effort to try to improve among Latinos, among African Americans, among women, among the Jewish Americans, and state by state, to improve among those key groups. And there were other groups we needed to maintain our support among.

And so there was a very methodical effort over the last four years to say: "How do we grow the electorate in a way that is beneficial to the president? And how do we bring new folks into the cause, and how do we make sure that our political tactics are the most effective they can be?" We used the '01 and '02 elections to test those tactics for '04.

So how does it happen, really practically speaking? Take me right down into the nuts and bolts of the boiler room. ... Who leads the meeting? How does it go? Are there statistics laid out on the table?

Well, there's a lot of different meetings. Basically what happens is everybody on the team recognizes our mission needs to be to use the '02 cycle to do two things: one, try to elect allies and friends; two, build the organization further that we had built in 2000 working with the Senate and House campaigns; and three, figure out the best practices politically for '04. And those were all things we tried to do.

And then in doing those things, we were able in target states to help grow important parts of the electorate. So Republicans and Democrats, for the first time ever in '04 -- it's never happened before -- were each 37 percent of the electorate. Never before in recorded political history have Republicans and Democrats represented an equal part of the electorate. Usually Democrats have an advantage. That didn't happen this time. Part of why it didn't happen is we had a four-year voter registration program. Part of why it didn't happen was in '02, we figured out and targeted ways to reach out to Republicans who are irregular voters. So that's what we tried to use the four-year period [when I was] political director to try to accomplish. …

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matthew dowd
Chief campaign strategist, Bush-Cheney 2004

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We did a fairly sophisticated analysis of what magazines people read or what kind of cars they own or where they live, a combination of what issues they're interested in. If somebody thinks that the war on terror is paramount and it's very important, they're more likely to be a Republican these days than a Democrat. If somebody is against the war in Iraq, they're more likely to be a Democrat these days than they are a Republican. So both with where people stand on issues today, which you could find out fairly easy [through] polling and research, and also their social or household habits will tell you a lot. If somebody gets Field and Stream, they're much more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter. If somebody gets Mother Jones, they're much more likely to be a Democratic voter, or Rolling Stone, for example, they're much more likely to be a Democratic voter.

And then that goes to what shows they watch. Somebody that watches CSI is much more likely to be a Republican. Somebody that watches a soap during the day is much more likely to be a Democrat. All of these things aren't completely 100 percent true, but when you go through it all and you factor it all out, you can find Republicans fairly quickly that way. That had never been done before. In the past, it was always, "Let's go find precincts that were Republican precincts, and let's turn out as many people in those precincts as possible."

Well, what we learned early on in 2001 and 2002, through some analysis, was that 85 percent of Republican voters don't live in Republican precincts, which makes it a much different way that you turn out. It's not just calling and going to Republican precincts. It means there's a whole bunch of Republicans that live in traditionally Democratic precincts around this country, and the only way to find them is individual profiles or calling or doing all that sort of things, which is what we did, especially in the 17 or 18 target states. We obviously knew this was an electoral campaign. We didn't spend a lot of resources in Texas or other states that we knew were going to vote for Kerry or vote for Bush. It was concentrating. So we did a lot of this analysis and activity of the 17 or 18 target states. …

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Thomas edsall
Reporter, The Washington Post

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Traditional Republican targeting had been, "Let's send out mail to people who live in precincts that vote 65 percent Republican." That way you figure at least six to seven of every piece of mail is going to a Republican, and only 35 percent wastage.

But further analyzing that, they found that only 15 percent of all Republicans live in such precincts; 85 percent live in other ones. And this was even worse when they were looking for what they call these soft Republicans, who were either unregistered or unreliable voters. Almost none of those live in high-density Republican precincts, so they had to figure out how to get to these guys.

They then took Nielsen lists and then consumer data lists. You can buy all kinds of lists of how you use your American Express card and VISA card. Every time you swipe it, it goes into a data bank. And what you buy, what your habits [are] -- they then would get those lists for people. You have 200 million people on these lists that you can buy. You then survey these lists politically and find out who is a Republican.

Then you do correlations on -- for example, people who have caller ID on their phones tend to be Republicans. People who drink Coors beer tend to be Republicans. People who watch Fox News tend very much to be Republican. You get all these flags … and then you would find ways to then start targeting people, no matter where they lived. ...

There was constant refinement and working all towards 2004 of developing these lists, all this merging of data and combining it, all towards the goal of trying to identify different kinds of target constituencies and how actually to get those people to vote. What kind of messages would work? Do you do it over Fox News? You do it through Fox News. You do it through direct mail. You do it through, if you can, getting someone who's a member of their gun club to call them, all this stuff. They collect lists and lists and lists of local gun clubs, of local churches, and they would try to find Bush supporters in a given church, in a given gun club, who would be willing to actually become what amounted to precinct chairmen. They would be the gun club chairman in a sense, or the church chairman.

And [then] they tried to get the same messages going through every possible medium that they could find, and they -- I mean, this is sort of the untold part of this campaign. It never got out in what we explored of how they just worked and worked and worked at this thing. And it all grew out of a strategy that Rove mapped out and Mehlman worked out in mid-2001, early 2002. And they stuck with that strategy and carried it right out, all the way through to Election Day this year.

So this is metrics?

Absolutely. That's the word they use all the time. Everything is a metric, and they're always measuring. ...

In your career as a political reporter, have you ever seen anything like this, at this level of detail and understanding of the electorate, and breaking down the electorate this way and going after it?

No. But in fairness, it's a technological advance, and they're capitalizing. So it's always whatever is being done now is better than in the past. But what I would say is these guys have put more intention, detail, time, money, resources and thinking into this than any other campaign, Democrat or Republican, that I've seen. They really believe that to find the people they want, they want to use every possible technique that works.

That means testing and experimenting, forking over some money on "Let's try this out. If it works, what can we do to improve it? If it doesn't work, we've lost money on that, but [let's] move on." It took a whole lot of money, and they had money. That was a very important advantage that they had. Basically starting in 2001, they had a lot of money at the RNC. I think $293 million they raised in that election cycle...

But they also have the smarts to think this through. And they also created a whole marketplace for the guys, the techno-nerds who think about these things but don't know what to do with it. Here's this sudden place that wants to buy ideas and techniques, and these guys started coming in and they make proposals. And a lot of the early work involved having guys come in and filtering through all these proposals, what sounded reasonable, doable. And they came up with some pretty fancy stuff. ...

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Thomas balz
Reporter, Washington Post

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They did one interesting experiment. I think it was in South Carolina. They decided, "OK, what's more effective, paid phone banks or your neighbors calling you?" And so they literally did a test where they found a group of either uncommitted or leaning voters, two groups of them, equal size. They gave one to a professional phone bank, and they gave another to a group of Republican volunteers from the state, who spoke in the accent, the vernacular, knew how to talk to people from the state. And they found that in fact the paid phone bank did not produce as high a turnout among that target group as the volunteers did.

... What we found was that they had done a number of these, and out of that you aggregate it up, and you find that they have figured out a way to enlarge the electorate somewhat. It doesn't have to be 20 percent. It never is in politics. One of the things about Karl Rove is, Karl's not a believer in the big-bang theory of realignment. Karl's a believer in incremental politics.

John Weaver, who's been a competitor over the years, and more recently an ally, said that of the things Karl does is, it's kind of like the old Woody Hayes Ohio State football teams, which is "three yards and a cloud of dust": You keep accumulating territory from your opponent, and you get it bit by bit. You don't go out and corral it all in one election. You find the weak points, and you go get a little bit of it, and then you solidify that, and you go get it a little bit more. …

What the Rove/Dowd/Bush/Mehlman/McKinnon operation has had as a guiding principle is the more people you can get to call themselves Republican, the better off you are, because over the period of the '90s, Republicans, people who call themselves Republican, began to vote Republican in higher percentages than ever before -- 90 percent. Had been 75 percent or 80 percent. That 10 or 12 or 14 points makes a huge difference in an election.

So when Ed Gillespie was chosen to be chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1999, he said to Karl Rove, "What's the most important thing I can do?" And Rove said, "You can register 3 million Republicans," because they knew if you get people registered as Republicans, you're going to get x percent of those to come out, and 90 percent of those who come out, or 95 percent, will vote for the Republican candidate. …

That's what we've seen in 2004, is that notion writ large around the country. That was the strategy for 2004. And so where did they do it? They did it in the rural areas, as they had done it in Texas in the mid-'80s. They began to consolidate rural East Texas, for example, a bastion of Yellow Dog Democrats through the '70s and part of the '80s, that began to vote Republican, and by now is solidly Republican. They began to do it in Texas in the fast-growing counties -- first the suburban and then the exurban counties outside the core urban counties of Houston and Dallas, because they knew they were maximizing where they were in those urban counties. So they had to make the suburbs in Texas Republican, and then they realized it's beyond the suburbs where the real growth is taking place. And so they went around the country in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and said, "OK, where are the fastest growing counties, because those are counties where we're more likely to find Republicans."

But the other thing they did then was they said, "OK, who are people who are probably Republican that we're overlooking, who may be in an urban area, people who drive a Cadillac, or whatever magazines they subscribe to?" And they did a great deal of very narrow targeting and analysis and reached out to them as well. So again, it was not simply going to the rural areas. It was not simply focusing on exurban areas. It was trying to find people who in one way or another fit the Republican model, and to talk to them directly and stitch that together into making the kind of victory they had.

Presumably the Democrats could do, did do some of this themselves. Was it just that Rove and those guys did it better?

I think that's partly true. It's very hard to say the Democrats did a bad job of trying to identify and get out their vote. What the Democrats did was more limited than what the Republicans did, and by that I mean the Democrats' effort at registration in particular was aimed primarily at the minority community. That was the big focus for obvious reasons. The biggest falloff in their vote tends to be in minority areas. Minority communities vote less regularly; fewer people are registered. So they put a great deal of effort into that, and they did a very good job on it. In some places, they out-registered the Republicans at certain points during 2004 in the registration battles. …

But I think that the Republicans did it more across the board, and I think they had a greater strategic sense. And even Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, now acknowledges this, that what the Republicans did better than the Democrats did was they figured out ways to go into the Democratic base and peel away votes. It's not that they did a better job of getting their base out than the Democrats did at getting their base out. But I think that while the Democrats thought the Kerry message was speaking to swing voters, the Republicans in the end were more effective at getting those swing voters.

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posted april 12, 2005

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