Contrary to Karl Rove's pre-election assertions -- which the media accorded significance despited his presumable responsibility to express optimism -- Democrats won control of both houses of Congress. This raises the question of whether the media were wrong in treating Rove's optimistic predictions as anything more than a job requirement.
The November 7 midterm elections produced the opposite result from what White House senior adviser Karl Rove had predicted, with the Democrats winning control of both houses of Congress. According to a November 9 New York Times report, Rove's aides “knew a month ago how much trouble they were in, at least in the House.” Given the media's coverage of his predictions as significant -- when optimism on his part was, The New York Times now confirms, merely a job requirement and not necessarily a function of any inside knowledge or instinct -- the actual outcome of the elections raises the very real question of whether the media will acknowledge that they were wrong in treating them as anything more than necessity.
Rove has previously made electoral predictions that proved unrealistic. During the 2000 presidential race, Rove predicted that then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush would win 320 electoral votes, according to the St. Petersburg Times; in fact, Bush received 271. Rove also told the Houston Chronicle that the possibility of an electoral split, with former Vice President Al Gore receiving a majority of the electoral votes but losing the popular vote -- in fact, the opposite happened -- was not a split that could happen, asserting that “a weird set of political dynamics” that were “not repeatable in modern America” had resulted in the last instance of such a split, in 1888.
Yet a number of media reports leading up to the election uncritically reported Rove's optimistic predictions without mentioning his flawed track record. For example:
- When host Robert Siegel pointed out to Rove that major public opinion polls showed Democrats with a significant advantage over Republicans during an October 24 interview broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered, Rove told Siegel, “You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to the math.” Rove also said, “I'm looking at all these [races], Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House.”
- On the October 31 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, senior national correspondent Claire Shipman reported on Rove's NPR interview and confidence in the days before the election, noting that "[p]olitical Svengali" Rove had presented “a compelling scenario as to just how Republicans might hang onto the House. He said, 'Every way I look at it, I see we have a structural advantage.' ” Shipman also detailed Rove's “unconventional wisdom as to why Republicans might even hang onto the House when most polls show it going Democratic by at least a few seats.”
- In an October 25 Associated Press report, staff writer Deb Riechmann reported on the October 24 “Radio Day” press event at the White House, where administration officials granted interviews to a host of radio outlets. Riechmann noted that Rove “gushe[d] with optimism about Election Day,” and uncritically reported his prediction that “Republicans would retain control of Congress, discounting polls that show the Democrats threatening to take over.”
Media Matters for America previously noted the willingness on the part of the media to report Rove's professed optimism as indicative of more than simple necessity. Before the examples cited above, during the news summary segment of the October 18 edition of PBS' NewsHour, host Jim Lehrer reported without challenge or rebuttal that Rove “dismissed Democrats' chances of winning control of Congress,” adding that Rove “told The Washington Times [that] Republicans may lose seats in both the Senate and House, but they will keep their majorities." Similarly, on the October 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster reported that Rove “remain[s] very calm and optimistic about the election” despite the recent congressional page scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and what The New York Times described as an “intensifying corruption inquiry” into Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA). Neither noted that Rove may have no choice but to convey optimism.
After the election, The New York Times reported on November 9 that in the weeks heading into the election, “keeping in character and hewing to longstanding political strategy, Mr. Rove presented an optimistic front, telling anyone who would listen that the party would hold control of the House and the Senate.” This despite the fact that "[t]hree weeks before the election, various efforts to crunch polling data and find a path toward success kept coming to the same best case result: the Democrats would take 17 seats."
On the November 9 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, correspondent Brian Todd reported that prior to the elections, “many Republicans pinned their hopes on Rove, because of his track record,” adding that given the outcome, some “on the conservative side have had it with the image of Karl Rove as political genius.” Todd's report quoted Time columnist Andrew Sullivan, who asserted that “the base strategy now shows [Rove] not to be a genius but to be a real failure.” Todd's report also excerpted Rove's NPR interview with Siegel in which Rove proclaimed access to "the math."
From the October 24 broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered:
SIEGEL: We're in the home stretch, though, and many would consider you on the optimistic end of realism about --
ROVE: Not that you would be exhibiting a bias or a -- I like that. You're just making a comment.
SIEGEL: I'm looking at all the same polls that you're looking at every day.
ROVE: No, you're not. No, you're not.
SIEGEL: No, I'm not. You're right.
ROVE: No, you're not. You're not. I'm looking at 68 polls a week. You may be looking at four or five public polls a week that talk about attitudes nationally but that do not impact the outcome of --
SIEGEL: I'm looking at main races between -- certainly Senate races.
ROVE: Well, like the poll today showing that Corker's ahead in Tennessee, or the race -- poll showing that Allen is pulling away in the Virginia Senate race.
SIEGEL: Leading Webb in Virginia, yeah.
ROVE: Yeah. Exactly.
SIEGEL: But you've seen the DeWine race and the Santorum race -- I don't want to have you call races.
ROVE: Yeah, I'm looking at all these, Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to the math.
SIEGEL: Well, I don't know if we're entitled to our different math, but you're certainly --
ROVE: I said the math. I said you're entitled to yours, yeah.
From the October 31 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America:
SHIPMAN: Good morning, Robin. Well, the White House has its star campaigners out in force -- the president, the vice president, their wives -- all warning about terrorism and the election of Democrats. But look for a shift in tone in this final week, a projection of confidence. This White House believes that the power of positive thinking is critical to success.
With whirlwind touchdowns in Georgia and Texas, President Bush unleashed his rhetorical heat for the final week.
BUSH: When the Democrats ask for your vote, what's your answer?
SHIPMAN: Both stops in what had been stronghold Republican turf, a clear mark of deep Republican concern one week away from the vote. But as other Republicans around the country popped the Alka-Seltzer, what does this man know that the rest of us don't? Political Svengali Karl Rove is flashing a perpetual grin on the trail. Listen to his response when an NPR radio host suggests he might be overly optimistic.
ROVE (audio clip): I'm looking at all of these, Robert, and adding them up. And I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to the math.
SHIPMAN: Rove's unconventional wisdom as to why Republicans might even hang onto the House when most polls show it going Democratic by at least a few seats? First, the bulk of the competitive House race's -- 34 out of 53 -- involve a Republican incumbent. Historically, incumbency gives an enormous edge. Second, the Republican get-out-the-vote effort. A huge asset in the past two elections, it still looks stronger than what the Democrats have in place. Finally, and perhaps what's most behind the smile, pure psychology. Sources say Rove believes whatever the reality, voters want to back a winner.
STU ROTHENBERG (political analyst): It's -- part of his job is to get Republicans enthusiastic, to make sure that they turn out. And if -- and if he says they're gonna lose, there'll be a lot of Republicans who'd stay home, and that would make the problem worse.
SHIPMAN: And let me tell you, when you talk to Rove, as we did yesterday from the campaign trail, he can lay out a compelling scenario as to just how Republicans might hang onto the House. He said, “Every way I look at it, I see we have a structural advantage.” Remember, Karl Rove has a lot of wins under his belt. But he's headed into most of them with a decided edge. Not so this time, Robin.
From the October 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
CAFFERTY: Twenty days and counting until the mid-term elections. A lot of time left for a so-called October surprise. A lot of possibilities out there, too, on what might come along to affect the elections -- international threats like North Korea's nuclear tests, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the widely covered mess in Iraq, not to mention finding Osama bin Laden -- to the domestic issues like the Mark Foley sex scandal. Many people think Karl Rove would be the architect behind an October surprise, if it comes. It just so happens Rove told The Washington Times he's confident the Republicans will keep control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He says the “Foley matter,” his words, will have impact in some limited districts but not overall. Perhaps Mr. Rove knows something we don't.
From the October 25 Associated Press report by Deb Riechmann:
President Bush's political top gun Karl Rove gushes with optimism about Election Day. National security adviser Stephen Hadley says the Iraqis need to do more to secure their nation and do it faster. Presidential confidant Dan Bartlett takes a few verbal punches at Democrats.
It was “Radio Day” at the White House, where more than 30 talk-show hosts were invited to set up shop in a heated white tent on the North Lawn to quiz senior administration officials. Beginning at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, the broadcasters chatted live about everything from Iraq to homeland security to the Nov. 7 elections.
Rove predicted the Republicans would retain control of Congress, discounting polls that show the Democrats threatening to take over.
“You heard it here first,” Rove declared in his interview with Fox News Radio.
From the November 6, 2000, edition of the St. Petersburg Times:
The upbeat, confident mood in the Bush campaign is reflected by today's travel schedule. Bush will visit Gore's home state of Tennessee and President Clinton's home state of Arkansas, with stops in Iowa and Wisconsin, states that traditionally vote Democratic, before arriving home in Austin late tonight.
Rove predicts Bush will win 320 electoral votes Tuesday, then cautioned that it is only a calculated guess.
“No one should underestimate the amount of work that needs to be done,” he said.
From the November 6, 2000, edition of The Houston Chronicle:
Rove predicted Bush will win enough states to get about 50 more Electoral College votes than he needs to win. Rove also predicted Bush will get about 50 percent of the popular vote, with Gore at about 45 percent.
Rove discounted the much-discussed possibility that Gore could win the Electoral College while losing the national popular vote to Bush, a scenario that has not occurred since 1888.
“You had a weird set of political dynamics (in 1888) that are not repeatable in modern America,” Rove said.
From the November 9 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: So what happened? Democrats have officially wrested control of both the House and the Senate from Republicans. Now some are wondering how a key Republican whose prior predictions were often so right, this time those predictions were so wrong. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd, he's joining us for more on this part of the story. Brian?
TODD: Wolf, those predictions came from Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, and despite pre-election poll indicating heavy GOP losses, many Republicans pinned their hopes on Rove, because of his track record. Two weeks before mid-terms, Karl Rove exudes the confidence of a man who's won three national elections for his party. When an NPR reporter presses him on polls showing Republican fortunes slipping --
ROVE [audio clip]: I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math, I'm entitled to the math.
TODD: Now, in the wreckage of a Democratic rout, deputy White House press secretary Dana Parino tells CNN there's no tension between Rove and President Bush. She says this comment the day after was a full-hearted joke.
BUSH [video clip]: I obviously was working harder in the campaign than he was.
TODD: Parino says Rove, who declined our request for an interview, doesn't spend a lot of time quote on the couch, thinking about his personal role in these situations. But others on the conservative side have had it with the image of Karl Rove as political genius.
SULLIVAN: He didn't get a majority of the popular vote in 2000, he squeezed a 51 percent victory in 2004. He's been teetering on the brink ever since, and the base strategy now shows him not to be a genius but to be a real failure.
TODD: One GOP strategist says Rove's political team could have done more to warn voters about a Nancy Pelosi-led house. But some analysts believe Rove played too much to the base.
JIM VANDEHEI (Washington Post reporter): The problem was it became such a sort of a hard edge, let's help conservatives, let's fire up conservatives, that they almost tied their hands. It made it very difficult to get out of that strategy and then just try to reach to the center.
TODD: But a GOP activist who knows Rove says there were forces at work here that even the so-called architect couldn't control.
GROVER NORQUIST (Americans for Tax Reform president): Karl Rove is in charge of the get-out-the-vote effort, in charge of the political campaign. The decision to occupy Iraq was not Karl Rove's. And it's not exactly fair to blame him.
TODD: Another longtime Republican strategist told me, quote, “No one's going to tell you with a straight face that Karl could have saved this election,” end quote. The next election, he says, will also depend on Iraq. And he says Rove and the Republicans cannot get themselves into a situation where they are all defending the war, and the Democrats are all opposing it. Wolf?
BLITZER: Brian Todd, thank you. Brian Todd.