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Talking 2016 with Karl Rove

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Karl was my guest yesterday, and while there is certain to be a great and accomplished field of GOP contenders from among four senators, six governors and one congressman —the list is named in the transcript of the interview here— the key to being competitive then is building the GOP network now, and for reasons Karl discusses, the GOP is getting better than it was during the last cycle.

A lot of the progress has to do with the collection and organization of data which in turns allows for the effective mobilization of conservatives at election time.  Here is the key excerpt:

 HH: I’ve read Jonathan Alter’s book, and I’ve read Dan Balz’ book, [and] our team just got blown out of the water on data collection, get out the vote, the blocking and tackling [in 2012] that you were so good at when you were orchestrating the dynamics behind George W. Bush’s two presidential wins. Do we have to get in this game earlier? Do we have to start the campaign now?

KR: Well, we have to get in the game earlier to have the tools and the processes and the mechanisms that allow us to do it. For example, you mentioned data. You know, we had a robust data effort from 2001 through the 2004 election. In fact, thereafter, we had it. But we have not had it over the last several years. And we need to reenergize that whole part of our activity. Let’s put this in context, though. If you read the documents about the Democratic data effort, you get the strong whiff that they say look, we know the Republicans would have more contacts. They have a bigger volunteer base, and they’d have a bigger quantity of contacts. So we, the Democrats, had to have a better quality of contact. And that’s how they aimed their technology. Now what advantage was it to them? There’s an interesting study done by a couple of political science professors where they looked at 38 media markets shared between battleground and non-battleground states like Cincinnati, Ohio. Everybody in Cincinnati, Southwestern Ohio sees TV ads, but so do people in Southeastern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. So the study looked at those media markets that are divided between battleground and non-battleground. They found two things. One, turnout was four and a half points bigger in the battleground portions of those media markets than in the non-battleground. So television had an impact everywhere, but the ground game drove four and a half perfect more voters out in the battleground states. And second, they found that the Democrats had a one point five percent advantage over the Republicans because of that effort. So if we’d close that gap so there was no gap, then we would have taken Virginia and Florida. If we had a one and a half point advantage, we would have taken Ohio and Colorado, and the election as well. So I’m sort of optimistic. I know the people who are working on this. There’s an effort to restructure and modernize the data trust. They have a chief technology officer who’s double-hatted at the RNC named Andy Burkett, who was a big dog at Facebook, and they are hiring smart engineers, and they are actively working on closing the data gap. And I think they will.

HH: All right, then there’s a second aspect of it. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Peter Hamby’s Shorenstein Center paper, Did Twitter Kill The Boys On The Bus?

KR: I have.

HH: Have you read that, Karl?

KR: Yes, I have.

HH: We just are flat-footed. I’m not. You’re not. But a lot of our Congressional staff, a lot of our media people, a lot of our old dogs are, they don’t like new tricks at all. What do we do?

KR: Well, look, again, things don’t change overnight. And there are a lot more people who are involved in sort of the social media and the application of the internet and data to campaigns, which in a way is a throwback to an old style campaign. I mean, one of the interesting things to me is this really is getting back to that letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1840, make a perfect list of the voters, ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote, have the undecideds talked to by someone they hold in confidence, and on Election Day, make certain that every Whig is brought to the polls. The Democrats did a better job than we did on point number three, have the undecideds talked to by someone they hold in confidence. The way they did this is they microtargeted not only the voters, but they also microtargeted the volunteers and donors, and then they swept their social networks so they knew who was on their Facebook page, and whose Facebook page they were on, and then who was in their LinkedIn network, or their Twitter feed, or whatever. And then, they matched a volunteer with someone who was a target that they knew. And if nobody knew the target voter, they matched a volunteer who thought and looked like them. So you didn’t have the, you know, if you had the Vietnam-era veteran, you didn’t have them being called upon by a 23 year old college kid. You had him called on by a Vietnam-era, you know, maybe it wasn’t a veteran, but a Vietnam-era person who shared their outlook…. I heard Senator Cruz this morning talking to the auto dealers here in Washington, and he was talking about how he’d set up this website, and had gotten something like four million people to sign a petition on defunding Obamacare. Well, why is he doing that? In part, because he wants to build a bigger list of people that he can reach to for a potential presidential campaign. So a lot of these guys are doing that stuff now. And that’s healthy. And that’s good. And they’re smart not to say I’m going to be a candidate, because rarely does the first person into the race escape scrutiny and tough hits. So they’re going to try and diminish the number of months they’ve got to be a presidential candidate. But let’s not kid ourselves. Every one of those eleven people is thinking seriously about it. And virtually every one of them is doing something actively to lay the groundwork for being a candidate.

What some GOPers in the House and the Senate don’t seem to understand at all is that battles like the one looming over the CR have to be fought as means to the end of winning in 2014 and 2106.  The four horsemen of the Senate –Cruz, Lee, Paul and Rubio– get this and work the media field and thus the ground for 2104 and 2016.  Sniping at them because they know the score reveals that the ones jawing on the sidelines still think the way to reach the American people is via an appearance on Face the Nation.

Next week is a huge week for focusing the country on all the ills of Obamacare –the collapsing availability of doctors for the poor, the withdrawal of many companies from many states, the skyrocketing premiums, the march of the 30 hour work week, etc.  If the GOP’s senators use the debate in the Senate to drive these points home, they will win and the country will win even as they lose the CR spending fight.

This isn’t complicated.  It only takes some small measure of rhetorical ability and a tiny bit of political courage.




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