Tell Me More: Karl Rove and Election Strategies

The former advisor to George W. Bush talks Trump, the Electoral College, Democratic primaries, battleground states, and White House in a Tufts podcast
A man speaking into a microphone. Karl Rove, the former advisor to George W. Bush and political strategist, talks Trump, the Electoral College, Democratic primaries, battleground states, and White House in a Tufts podcast.
“We like to have the myth that everything comes down to Ohio or . . . Florida, but you don’t know that at the beginning. At the end, it does come back down to the state whose electoral votes pop you over 270,” said Karl Rove. Photo: Alonso Nichols
December 4, 2019

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play MusicSpotifyStitcher, and SoundCloud.

TRANSCRIPT

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Alan Solomont, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College of Civic Life, asks Rove how that fateful conversation affected Trump’s campaign strategy. Rove, who served as Bush’s senior advisor and deputy chief of staff, also talks about how the Republican Party has changed since his time in the White House—and what kind of Democrat could beat Donald Trump in 2020. Let’s listen in.

ALAN SOLOMONT: Let me get right to it, if I may.

KARL ROVE: Sure.

SOLOMONT: President Trump, I understand, asked your advice during the 2016 election.

ROVE: That’s one way of putting it.

SOLOMONT: Well, okay. He wasn’t president yet, so maybe you’ll be able to talk a little bit about your meeting and how much credit you can take for his win.

ROVE: Well, I can’t take any credit for his win, but this is at the end of May 2016, when he’d secured the Republican nomination, but he hadn’t yet become the nominee. A mutual friend called me and said, “The Donald is going to be the party’s nominee, and you’ve been critical of him and he’d like you to write something nice about him.” The Wall Street Journal called me—this happened on a Wednesday afternoon.

SOLOMONT: He didn’t ask you to write something about Joe Biden.

ROVE: No. But I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, you know, it’s Wednesday,” it was Wednesday afternoon. I said, “I’m in the final stages of editing my piece for the Wall Street Journal; let me read it to you if you like.” And so I read him the piece and he said, “Oh great, Trump will love that. He will love that.” And the next morning he called me and said, “Trump is furious with what you wrote.”

The mutual acquaintance said that he told Trump, “He is just trying to give you good advice.” So long story short, a few days later I received an invitation to meet with Trump. It happened in New York shortly thereafter, and I said to our mutual friend, I said, “Look, I write the column, I’m not in the advice-giving business in presidential campaigns.” He says, “Well, you’ve been in it twice. You’ve won twice. He wants to know how you won it.”

“I think the Democrats have made a mistake by starting the process earlier,” said Karl Rove. “I mean, the first Democratic debate was in June.” Photo: Alonso Nichols So I said, “Look, on that ground, I’m not going to show up, tell him how to run his campaign, but I’ll tell them the big decisions we had to make.” And of course, the most important and the biggest decision that you have to make is, you have to decide how you’re going to get to 270 in the Electoral College. So, our conversation started off with that, and I said, “In 2000, we had the traditional battleground states, which are different than they are today. I mean, Missouri was a battleground state in 2000 and had historically been so. No longer.

SOLOMONT: It was really Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

ROVE: Right—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio.

SOLOMONT: And whoever won two out of the three would become president.

ROVE: Well, that assumed that that states like Missouri and Colorado would—and Nevada—would go to the Republicans. So, it gets to be a very complicated. And the whole purpose of my meeting at that point was to say, “It’s a complicated puzzle and you better have a way to get there, and several ways to get there.”

For example, in 2000, people forget this, but we had four states that had voted twice for Clinton/Gore, were historically Democrat, and we had to win every one of them. Arkansas, the home state of the sitting president, Tennessee, the home state of the Democratic nominee, Kentucky, which was historically Democrat, and West Virginia, which we now know is deep red, but it went for Al Gore and Bill Clinton over Bob Dole by 16 points and the last time it had voted for a Republican in an open race for the presidency before 2000 was 1928—and it took nominating Al Smith at New York Catholic to bring out all those Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians to vote Republican.

So I said to him, “Here’s the states that we had to make it. Here were the states that we had to play with.” Well, it sort of got sort of odd, because I said, “When we got to the West, there were western states that Clinton/Gore had won once or twice, Montana and Arizona, and Nevada, or had won twice.”

We had to win all three of the states that Clinton/Gore had won at least once. Plus, we thought we had a chance in Oregon, because Ralph Nader was on the ballot. The Republicans were in a brief moment of renaissance, had just elected a U.S. senator. They had two constitutional officers in the state. They had a majority of the state house. They were down one seat in the state senate. They had three of the five congressmen in the state, and Nader was on the ballot and with a real following in Portland, in Eugene.

So we said, we’ve got a shot at it, we eventually came within 5,500 votes of winning in Oregon. But when I said that, when I had said West Virginia, Mr. Trump said, “Well, I did really well in the primaries in West Virginia. I’ll win West Virginia.” And I said, “Yes, you will, but remember, here’s why. It’s been trending in the Republican direction.”

So when we got to Oregon, he said, “Well, I’ll win Oregon. I did really well in the primaries.” I said, “You won’t with Oregon.” I said, “Here’s why we had a shot at it in 2000, but the state since then has gone hard left. The last time the Republicans won a statewide race was 2002, they’re down to less than a third of the house, a third of the Senate, one out of every five congressmen, and you have no chance of winning Oregon.”

He said, “Well, I’ll win California.” I said, “No, you won’t.” He said, “I’ll win New York.” I said, “No, you won’t,” and explained why.

SOLOMONT: No wonder he was so angry at you.

ROVE: And so, at that point I said, “Look, you’re welcome to try and win those, but every day you spend trying to win a state you can’t win is a day that a presidential candidate forfeits winning in a state like, in your case, Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin or Iowa.”

And he looked at me and said, “Iowa, I didn’t do that well in the primary, in the caucuses there. I can win Iowa?” And I said, “Yeah, you can win Iowa,” I said. “All those farmers out in the West who didn’t like you in the caucuses, they hate her. And there are a lot of blue-collar types in the eastern part of the state who are worried about their jobs. They work at Deere or Caterpillar or in small manufacturing and they’re worried about their jobs and they’re open to voting for you. So yeah, you can win Iowa.”

And at that point he turned to our mutual friend and said, “Why isn’t anybody in my campaign telling me this?” And a couple of weeks later he went out and gave a speech, like ten days later, and said I told him, I said, “You’ve got to—we had to focus on 270 and that meant that every day that we spent outside those states was a day that was wasted, unless we had either fundraising necessities or a national message that we needed to...” We were going to the Urban League to talk about education reform. But I said, “Every day is vital, and we put all of our time and all of our energy and all of our resources into our battleground-state effort.”

So he went out and gave a speech and said, “I got to have a path to get to 270; I’m going to put all my time and energy and effort into these states. I’m going to tell you what they are over the next between now and the Republican convention. There are going to be fifteen battleground states, and I’m going to be laying them out over the next couple of weeks as we get ready to go to Cleveland for the convention. But today I’m going to tell you about three of the battleground states that I’m going to focus all my time, my energy, my effort on: New York, Oregon, and California.”

A few days later, the campaign announced that they were going to go to—that they were going to make Connecticut a battleground state because, of course, this is the home of his new campaign manager, Paul Manafort. So, fortunately, by the time of the Republican convention, Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway and others had said to him, “Mr. Trump, battleground states are not those. Here are the battleground states.” And from the time of the convention on, they had enough discipline in the campaign to focus on those battleground states.

SOLOMONT: So, he won by carrying Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by about 77,000 votes.

ROVE: Out of 13 million cast.

SOLOMONT: Right, and as we now know, a lot of people didn’t show up that would have otherwise voted. Are those three states still the keys to his re-election?

ROVE: Well, I think you’ve got to say that if he wins two out of the three, he gets re-elected, provided everything else is the same. If he loses two out of three, then he’s just got to make it up elsewhere. So yeah, they’re critical. But the thing about it is, no election—we like to have the myth that everything comes down to Ohio or everything comes down to Florida, but you don’t know that at the beginning. At the end, it does come back down to the state whose electoral votes pop you over 270, but we don’t know that until the end.

And so, I think they understand they’ve got a hill to climb and those—think about it—11,000 fewer votes, actually wins by Michigan won 11,000 votes and they are 25,000 fewer votes cast in the city of Detroit. 22,000 votes or thereabouts in Wisconsin, there are 35,000 fewer votes in the mostly black wards of Milwaukee…

SOLOMONT: And there are 350,000 college students in Wisconsin.

ROVE:  Oh yeah, and she may have let the normal Democrat musical groups go to Wisconsin, but she didn’t go herself, and the students are like everybody else. They want to see the candidate.

SOLOMONT: So, we’ve seen a number of presidents elected in the last decades with less than the popular majority. Is it time to scrap the Electoral College?

ROVE: No, I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. I think that if we went to a popular vote, how long before we’d have a runoff? And how long would it be before we had a splintered first round? It wouldn’t be two great parties; it’d be everybody who thought they had enough issues and enough money and enough momentum to get themselves in. And we’d end up—take a look at the European democracies, which are by and large parliamentary democracies, but look at how mangled their politics are, and how difficult it is for them to arrive at a functioning central state.

And I think the two-party system has the advantage, with the Electoral College, of forcing campaigns to be fought out over large, diverse parts of our geography. And then it provides a way to heal the country at the end because... We sort of get hung up on that final number. Bill Clinton got 43 percent of the vote—the same percentage of the vote that Michael Dukakis did in 1988. And yet the fact that he had won the Electoral College is part of the process by which people say, “Well, you know what? I had my choice, my choice didn’t win, but it’s our president and our country and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” and I think that’s really vital.

SOLOMONT: So, let’s talk about 2020. What do you make of the field on the Democratic side?

ROVE: Well, big, way too big, and put into the field way too early. I think the Democrats have made a mistake by starting the process earlier. I mean, the first Democratic debate was in June. In 2016, the first Republican debate was at the end of August. Now the difference between June, July, and August may not seem like much, but remember, that lengthens the primary process, then, by another quarter. So, that’s why all these candidates tended to get out in January and February of 2019 in order to get their campaigns up and going. So, the process got longer and, hence, got more expensive.

Second of all, the Democrats changed their rules again, which is a mistake, in their front loading. In 2016, 24 percent of the delegates were chosen between the first contest—Iowa—and March 3rd. This time round, the equivalent will be 48 percent, so we’re going to have a lot more delegates chosen at a point where the contest is going to be less settled.

Third, as you know, the Democrat rules are proportional. Get 15 percent of the vote and you get delegates. So, we’re likely to see a larger number of people get more delegates at the beginning because they hit that 15 percent margin. And then you toss in states like—Minnesota is going to be early. Amy Klobuchar’s going to get a bunch of delegates. California is early. It used to be at the end; they used to be June 6th. And New Jersey, sort of worked the tail end, now it’s March 3rd. Kamala Harris is going to get a bunch of delegates. So we’re likely to see a more fractured Democrat field.

And then the decision on the superdelegates. I understand why they made it, but they don’t get to vote on the first ballot. They could get to vote on the second. So, what happens if we have front-loaded primaries, a more fractured field, proportionality, and we go into the first convention since 1952 without a first-ballot winner, and on to the field come 775 superdelegates on ballot number two? That could be one hell of a messy contest.

SOLOMONT: So, what kind of Democrat will it take to beat Donald Trump in 2020?

ROVE: Well, I think the person who says, “I’m going to unify the country.” I think the country is... If the Democrats nominate somebody who is—the further left they nominate, the easier a target it is for Trump. So if it’s somebody who can say, who can somehow appease the left of the Democratic party, but be more of a traditional Democrat who is able to say to suburbanites and the swing voters, “You can live with me for four years and there aren’t going to be—we’re not going to make a transformation of the country.” You know, those kinds of words sort of scare the people who actually end up deciding the elections.

SOLOMONT: Changing topics a little bit, could you talk a little bit about the alt-right and the role that you think it will play in 2020?

ROVE: Well, I hope it doesn’t play any role. I think the alt-right is a very—I mean, we’ve seen this before. It is nativist, it’s racist, it’s bigoted, and it’s just like the Republican Party and the conservative movement had to oust the Birchers who are extremists. If you thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was an agent of the—in the international communist conspiracy, you were way out there. And a lot of these alt-right are a danger to not only the fabric of our country, or to the Republican Party, but a danger to the fabric of our country. I mean, there ought to be no room in the Republican Party and the conservative movement for the alt-right.

They’re frankly not right. They’re not conservatives in many respects, and they are radicals. They’re sort of like—we used to think about sort of the political continuum actually being a circle where if you were so far left and so far right, you, sort of, came together in your same kind of vehemence against the political system as it now exists. Your politics of resentment were based on different things, but looked alike in their expression. And the alt-right, to my mind, is a very damaging and despicable part of our political culture.

SOLOMONT: Why aren’t there more Republican voices? I know that we don’t hear that criticism or that disparaging comment about the alt-right from the president, but I would expect to hear it from other Republican voices.

ROVE: Well, I have to give the guy credit after Charlottesville; he came out and explicitly attacked it. And I think that was the resilient… I think that was the... He first made the comment about how there were good people on both sides, and then in all hell… heck broke loose, and I think that was the moment that he finally understood who Steve Bannon was and began to cast him out.

It was only after that that the president came out and made it clear that he opposed white supremacy. But look, I think one of the reasons why—most Republicans don’t operate in that environment. That is to say, if you go to Kansas or you go to Missouri or you go to Indiana or you go to Ohio or you go to Texas… I mean the alt-right is, in some ways, a creature of social media and of our media culture.

But in the reality, out there in the real world, they’re not there. You know, we’re talking about a small—relatively small—number, in the thousands, who show up at the same weird meeting sites and share the same websites and the same rituals, but who have little to no real impact upon politics as it goes on each and every day with the election of people to legislatures or Congress and so forth.

The Republican party does have one—I think you get a sense of this—we had one guy, Steve King of Iowa, who came out and has sort of associated himself with the—if not the ideology of the alt-right, at least with their catchphrases and their mindset. Republicans kicked him off all of his committee assignments, and I’m actively helping raise money to get him defeated in the Republican primary.

SOLOMONT: Tell me how the Republican Party has changed since you worked in the White House. Has it changed fundamentally or are these superficialities?

ROVE: I think it’s changed. Well, it’s changed, I’m not certain how permanent those changes are. The Republican Party that I have labored in, particularly in Texas, is a party that’s open to immigration. And if you look at it, if you talk to people that, “By God, we want to build a wall and stop those people from coming in,” but if you then talk to those same people and say, “Well, don’t you think we need to do something about the Dreamers?” A lot of them will nod their heads and say, “Yeah, we can’t send them home. This is their home.”

And when you say, Look, we’ve got 11 or 12 million people here in America… what about this proposition? You’ve got to show up and tell us you’ve been here. You have to prove that you were here for a couple of years, so just not taking people run across the border. You got to show us that you kept your nose clean, that you haven’t committed a crime. And then, if you want to remain here, you can either decide to stay here and work and you get to all the protections and laws and a work permit and, but you have to keep your nose clean. You can’t commit any crimes. You’ve got to pay your taxes and if you want to work the rest of your working career and then go home to the country where you came from, fine. But if you want to become a U.S. citizen, you got to go to the back of the line. There are a lot of people waiting in line patiently for citizenship. If you want to be a citizen, you’ve got to go behind them.

SOLOMONT: But why don’t we hear that from more Republican leaders?

ROVE: Well, you know what? Here’s the deal. I talk all the time around the country and the question comes up about immigration. And I say, “What about that deal? What about that deal?” And ordinary Republicans say, “I’m all for that.”

SOLOMONT: And why are few, if any, of the leaders in the Congress, for example, saying—

ROVE:  Well, first of all, I would remind you that that they can write pieces of legislation, but they’re not the president. They don’t get to set the tone for the party generally, but they’re ready to vote for that kind of thing. Remember, we almost had a deal under President Obama.

We almost had a deal under President Trump. I’m confident that we will ultimately solve this problem, but I would remind you also, I was here in 2007, where after seven years of fighting for this, for comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush, Ted Kennedy, and John McCain working particularly hand in glove in 2005, 2006, and 2007, it was Democrats who brought down the comprehensive immigration reform.

We had set up a procedure, it was going to be called the voterama. We had ninety-four proposals. People said, “If I get a chance to propose something and I can get it passed, then I might be able to vote for the whole bill.” Now, we would not have ended up having ninety-four votes, but there would have been twenty or thirty amendments that would have been voted on, and Harry Reid, for reasons that I do not understand to this day, unilaterally took upon itself to limit the amount of amendments to eight, four for each side.

He determined what those amendments were. And Democrats who had pledged to support comprehensive immigration reform came out and voted for the killer amendments, knowing it would blow up the deal. We had to have a guest worker program. We had people like Barack Obama, who sat there in the Cabinet Room and said, “I’m for comprehensive immigration reform,” vote to basically limit the amount of time that a guest worker program would be on the books, thereby making it non-viable. All four amendments—we had a sufficient number of Democrats to vote for them—then all four got added and brought down the bill.

SOLOMONT: What was your favorite part about working in the White House? And is there anything that you regret from your time there?

ROVE: The best thing was I worked around people who were very smart and who were there for the right reasons, and we were led by a guy who said, “You will serve the country best if you can have robust discussions about what it is we ought to do and respectful disagreements about the approaches, and at the end of the day, I’ll make a decision and we will do this all in a way that you have confidence. Whether you agree with where I’m going or not, with the decision I make or not, you will at least think that we went about it in a strong and sensible way.”

And so, you had to bring your A game because everybody else was bringing their A game, and you knew that the expression of your A game was not to stab somebody in the back by leaking, but by trying to understand where they were coming from, and hope to get them to understand where you were coming from. Find areas of common agreement. Find a common description of what the facts were underlying, crystallize your disagreements, crystallize the arguments in favor of whatever your approach was, put it in writing and make that case, if need be in front of the president, with respect, with somebody else sitting there across the couch from you who had a different perspective.

And that was exhilarating in many respects. That’s why if you look at the Bush White House, it’s unusual. Two chiefs of staff in eight years; average tenure of a senior White House aide is eighteen months. In the Bush White House, I stayed seven years. I wish I could have stayed eight. And, it was routine for people…

SOLOMONT: And you still look like a young man.

ROVE:  Exactly. And there were people... Well, that’s because Bush understood it. He said, “You’re no good to me if you wear yourself out, if you burn out. So I’m going to leave the office at 5:30.” Now, everybody knew that was a fiction. He was taking a gigantic notebook with about 150, 175 pages to get prepared for the next day, and he was going to be making phone calls from the office that he had in the White House. But what he was saying was, “Okay, you’re not going to impress me if you’re here at 8:00 or 9:00 at night and I’m not going to impose upon you.”

You know, Clinton, who had a great many strengths, one of his weaknesses was… many Clinton staffers, White House staffers told me they would go home for dinner at 7:00 or 7:30…

SOLOMONT: And then they’d go back.

ROVE:  And then they’d go back, because he would pop up at 10 or 11 or 12 o’clock at night and have the college bull session mulling over an issue, and it wore people out.

Similarly, Bush said, “If you have to have a weekend meeting, don’t feel compelled to come to the White House.” He said, “Have it at your house, you’ve all got safes for confidential material and your staff will feel better if they don’t have to dress up and I want you to have a life. Because if you don’t have a life outside the White House, you’re eventually going to burn out sooner rather than later inside the White House.”

SOLOMONT: Karl Rove, thank you very much, this has been a great conversation.

ROVE: Thanks for having me.

SOLOMONT: I know people are enjoying listening and will enjoy reading it.

ROVE: Thank you.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller, Julie Flaherty, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. This episode was edited by 5 to 9 Media and Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.