Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]

2004: the base strategy
In 2000, Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative," reaching out to moderates and seeking a large number of votes from the middle of the political spectrum. But in 2004, Rove and others on the campaign turned to a fairly radical strategy of focusing on increasing turnout from the party's conservative's base. What was behind the changed strategy in the 2004 race and what are the consequences for the Republican Party of this focus on the base? Commenting are Matthew Dowd, Bush-Cheney '04 chief campaign strategist; Mark McKinnon, Bush-Cheney '04 media adviser; Dana Milbank of The Washington Post; Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and former governor of New Jersey; Ken Melhman, chairman of the Republican National Committee; Republican strategist Mary Matalin; and Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

photo of dowd

matthew dowd
Chief campaign strategist, Bush-Cheney 2004

read the full interview

One of the first things I looked at after 2000 was what was the real Republican vote and what was the real Democratic vote, not just who said they were Republicans and Democrats, but independents, how they really voted, whether or not they voted straight ticket or not. And I took a look at that in 2000, and then I took a look at what it was over the last five elections or six elections.

And what came from that analysis was a graph that I obviously gave Karl, which showed that independents or persuadable voters in the last 20 years had gone from 22 percent of the electorate to 7 percent of the electorate in 2000. And so 93 percent of the electorate in 2000, and what we anticipated --93 or 94 percent in 2004, just looking forward and forecasting --was going to be already decided either for us or against us. You obviously had to do fairly well among the 6 or 7 [percent], but you could lose the 6 or 7 percent and win the election, which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, "Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters."

And so when that graph and that first strategic imperative began to drive how we would think about 2004, nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it. We didn't say, "Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing." We said, "Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation," which is basically what had been happening up until that point -- look at this graph, look at the history, look what's happened in this country.

And obviously that decision influenced everything that we did. It influenced how we targeted mail, how we targeted phones, how we targeted media, how we traveled, the travel that the president and the vice president did to certain areas, how we did organization, where we had staff. All of that was based off of that, and ultimately, thank goodness, it was the right decision.

This is the mobilization and motivation strategy.

Yup. Our goal was to say that we wanted the same number of Republicans on Election Day as Democrats, and if we saw that we had the same number of people that said they were Republicans on Election Day as Democrats, we were going to win the election, no matter what happened among the small group of persuadable voters. We couldn't get overwhelmingly beaten by them, which obviously you have a message and a strategy to deal with that. But that was our goal, and no presidential election, no Republican had ever been able to do that. And that happened on Election Day, the same number of Republican voters as Democrats on Election Day, first time ever.

photo of mckinnon

mark mckinnon
Media adviser, Bush-Cheney 2004

read the full interview

… What did you think when you heard "base strategy"?

Well, that it was pretty radical, first of all. But listen, it struck me as a political consultant as something radical, because for years we had always talked about that persuadable middle electorate, and that's what it was all about. You ignored everything else. All your resources went into that persuadable vote. But that vote was typically 20 percent of the electorate.

And when you look at the history, which Karl and Matthew did very closely, they looked at it and said: "This share of the pie is getting pretty thin. It's getting down to, like, 7 percent of true swing voters." So if that's the case, it means two things: one, that 7 percent is more important than ever; and two, [the] other part of the pie, we better pay attention to that, because if it's only 7 percent that's persuadable, we've got to make sure that we get these people out and vote. And that's what this campaign put a real focus on, was paying attention to the 7 percent for certain, but also making sure that there was a lot of attention paid to this other 42 percent. …

photo of milbank

Dana milbank
Reporter, Washington Post

read the full interview

Using entirely different strategies, [Karl Rove] was able to adjust to what he could see as the [predominant] mood in the country at the moment. "Compassionate conservatism" was the notion that brought Bush to power the first time around, and it was almost the opposite the second time around. It was a pure and simple play to the Republican conservative base. Forget about the compassion; this was conservatism. So he was able to switch message even using the same candidate. …

So what did he do in 2004? …

I don't think we can overstate this mobilization of the individual churches. Never happened before. Vast sort of untapped source of political energy in this country. The evangelicals didn't just come on board for him: They were campaigning; they were at the events; they were the poll volunteers; they were making the phone banks, the phone calls. You know, that's how you win elections. It was good old grassroots, door-knocking politics, but they tapped this group and organized it in a way that just had never been done to that extent before.

Religious conservatives, if they wanted to get into politics, [used to get] involved with Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition. No more. You're doing it right through your church. The Christian Coalition had no important effect on this election at all. It was all about your local Christian church. That turned out to be the rallying point.

So if you're a campaign guy who's used to ... direct mail, narrowcasting, how do you control [the local churches]? How do you mobilize them?

Well, arguably, direct mail is about finding the lists of the people who are most interested in hearing what you've got [to say]. You make appeals, as they did, and it caused little ripples and sensations along the way, asking churches for their membership directories. The church membership directory becomes the basis for this. The church leaders, lay leaders, clergy are volunteers in your campaign, spreading the word through their own networks. They have their networks. [Previously] they're just used for whatever it is, the potluck supper; now it's tied into the Republican National Committee. ...

A lot of what they did was improving the database and improving their get-out-the-vote efforts, where they felt that they had to do a good bit better job than the get-out-the-vote effort in 2000, which is one reason they didn't win by anything in the popular vote and didn't get the sort of victory that they were expecting. So it was all about that network.

photo of whitman

christine todd whitman
Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (2001-2003); governor of New Jersey (1993-2000)

read the full interview

As soon as the Supreme Court had decided that George W. Bush was to be the next president of the United States, Karl Rove focused on 4 million evangelicals who had not gone to the polls in 2000. And he felt they were Bush voters, and they should go out for him, and if he was able to capture those 4 million, that the president would be re-elected. I mean, he's done a brilliant job for what he's supposed to do, which is to ensure that the president has a Republican Congress and was re-elected. And he did all those things exceedingly well. My fear is at what cost to governance and what cost to the future of the party, because by hardening the base, by everything being aimed at that base of the evangelicals and the social fundamentalists, there was no effort to reach out to the middle. …

When you talk about the base, describe the base you are talking about.

Well, to me, the base was those 4 million evangelicals and the evangelicals who did vote for him, as well as the 4 million who had not voted for him. Karl has been pretty open, or was pretty open early on, I guess, in the administration, saying that that was where his focus was. And you certainly saw that, again, with the weekly luncheon meetings that he had with members of some of the most conservative groups, and giving them a feeling of empowerment which you're now seeing being played out when you have people that think SpongeBob SquarePants is a bigger threat to the future of this country than tax reform, because they get all caught up in that, and that's where their focus is.

That, I think, is going to be difficult for the president. And that's one of the concerns that I have. His ability to be the kind of leader he's going to want to be I think in some instances is going to be stymied by his own party. ...

… Can you govern from only a base strategy?

I don't think so. And that's what is very concern[ing] to me, because as an elected official, you're not representing just the base; you're representing all the people who elected you. And the president recognized that. He said it in his acceptance speech. He said it in his inaugural address. I mean, he wants to bring people together. I just believe that he's going to have an exceedingly hard time, because you've got people in the Congress who are standing up saying: "No, it's our turn now. This is our agenda. You may want some of these things, but we're not going to give them to you until you do some other things that we think are more important on issues that are divisive." …

photo of mehlman

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

read the full interview

George W. Bush went into this 2004 election with consistent support among Republicans and among conservatives, over 90 percent, larger than anyone's had since Ronald Reagan in '84, larger than Ronald Reagan in '84. And importantly, that base, Republicans and conservatives, constitute a larger proportion of the electorate in '04 than they did 20 years before, in 1984.

I know a lot of the press was mocking the idea of a base strategy.

The press, unfortunately for them, believes that it's zero-sum, that it's either a base or a swing strategy. And the fact is, we appeal to both. As I said, from a base perspective, conservatives increased their participation level as a proportion of the electorate. Republicans were for the first time ever equal to Democrats in their participation level of the electorate. At the same time, 44 percent of the Latino vote, the highest ever.

We improved our performance among people that live in big cities by 13 points, from 26 to 39 percent. African Americans go up, Jewish Americans go up, women go up. Across the political spectrum, we not only appealed to the red areas, making them redder, but we turned a lot of blue areas purple. ...

photo of matalin

mary matalin
Former assistant to President George W. Bush; former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney

read the full interview

… How revolutionary was [the idea of a base strategy] to you when you first heard about it as opposed to the vital center and all those other things we used to talk about all the time?

Well, this is a blue-state mythology that we ran a base campaign. We did not win with the base. The base is always important. The base is important for both sides [but] you can't win with the base. What this president won by, and significantly so in this election, were moderates. That's what Kerry didn't get. So you had to put moderates on top of something. But, there was no data that suggest any increase at any of the so-called base voters beyond the percentage of what they voted for in the last election. That is the fact.

It has become, even in the face of the repudiation of conventional wisdom, new conventional wisdom, that this was a base election. That's just not the case. So if the blue staters continue to mis-analyze what happened in this election, they will continue along the path of not such a positive outcome. …

photo of norquist

Grover norquist
Republican activist, president Americans for Tax Reform

read the full interview

I think Rove understands the nature of the modern conservative movement that coalesced around Reagan. I don't know that Reagan or any one person put it together, but it came together. And it's a collection of people who want to be left alone. ...

And what Rove and President George W. Bush did was from the 2000 election [is] stand in the middle of that coalition and keep in touch with it. The left says, "Oh, you're playing to the base." Yeah, the base is 60 percent of the electorate. The playing to the base is called winning the election. It's called getting 60 percent of vote. And they'd have won 60 percent of the vote if Iraq wasn't depressing enthusiasm for the campaign.

home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
tapes & transcript · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 12, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation