As Republicans continue to reflect on Mitt Romney's loss in the 2012 presidential campaign, prominent GOP strategist Karl Rove is offering up his assessment of what went wrong for the GOP this cycle, even as the super PAC he co-founded is the target of some ridicule for raising hundreds of millions of campaign dollars to little effect.
Rove, speaking Wednesday night at the Jefferson Educational Society Global Summit IV in Erie, Pennsylvania, downplayed the significance of President Obama's victory last Tuesday, chalking it up largely to the fact that he was not opposed in the primary and that his campaign bet big on negative advertising.
"President Obama now has a unique status in American politics," said Rove. "He's the first president to win re-election with a smaller percentage of the vote and a smaller margin over his opponent than he won in his first election."
Even so, the former George W. Bush political strategist acknowledged that the GOP has some room for improvement going forward. Not only do Republican candidates need to better understand and appeal to women, Latinos, and Asian-American voters, he said, but they also need to do a better job of extending the GOP ground game in all 50 states. To do that, Rove said, it's critical the party set about understanding the much-lauded Obama campaign's system and finding a way to reengineer it for their own purposes.
"Tactically, Republicans must rigorously re-examine their '72-hour' ground game and reverse-engineer the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort in order to copy what works. For example, a postelection survey shows that the Democratic campaign ground game was more effective in communicating negative information," he wrote in his Wall Street Journal column today. "It would be good to know why--and how to counter such tactics in the future."
Rove, who essentially created the model for post-Citizens United outside donor groups - or so-called "super PACs" - with American Crossroads, the group he co-founded, also conceded that super PAC money could have been more effectively spent in the 2012 campaign. He argued that too much of that money had gone to consultants, not targets.
Rove's group certainly did not produce the kind of financial return for which it had aimed: According to a study by the Sunlight Foundation just 1.29 percent of the nearly $104 million American Crossroads spent in the general election ended up going to a winning race.
Many attributed Rove's personal investment in the presidential race to his election night reaction, live on Fox News, upon hearing Ohio called for Mr. Obama, which Rove protested on the air. He recounted Wednesday night he was watching the numbers on election night and that the race still looked close, but admitted he was "sensitive" to the possibility that a state be called too early.
"I must admit I am sensitive about this. In 1980 Democrats complained that the networks called the 1980 presidential election prematurely thereby driving [down] turn out in Senate races in the West," he said. "I don't make decision about when I go on the air. My superiors at Fox said, this is an interesting point, let's have him make the point ... And [Democratic strategist] Joe Trippi and I are sitting there comparing notes and both of us say, 'what do they know that either Chicago doesn't know or Romney doesn't know, or that the Secretary of State is not showing on their website.' 999 votes, does that look like a convincing win to you?"
Ultimately, Rove put much of Romney's loss on low turnout for both parties.
"This is the first time in 16 years in which the number of people voting in a presidential election dropped from the previous election," he said. "President Obama got 90.1 percent of the vote that he got in 2008 and mitt Romney got 98.6 percent of the vote that Mitt--that John McCain won in 2008. Both sides did a good job of generating their partisans but both parties failed to get a higher turnout."
In the meantime, at a meeting of Republican governors in Las Vegas Wednesday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal laid the blame of Romney's loss squarely on the candidate and his campaign.
"His campaign was largely about his biography and his experience," Jindal said. "But time and time again, biography and experience is not enough to win an election. You have to have a vision, you have to connect your policies to the aspirations of the American people. I don't think the campaign did that and as a result, this became a contest between personalities and - you know what? - Chicago won that."
"We need to acknowledge the fact that we got beat," Jindal added in an interview with the Associated Press. "We clearly got beat and we need to recognize that."