Is there a “right way” and a “wrong way” to win elections? Is it “too easy” for presidential candidates to simply win more electoral votes than their opponents? Or are they responsible, for the sake of our democracy, to try to win big?
That odd debate was sparked this week by the New York Times in a widely, widely ridiculed article that seemed to chastise Hillary Clinton's campaign for not trying to win over swing voters and voters in deeply red, Republican states. Despite the ridicule, the “narrow path” critique was quickly embraced by columnists David Brooks at the Times and Ron Fournier at National Journal, who attached ethical implications to the campaign strategy.
Fournier complained that simply winning more votes than your opponent in 2016 is definitely the “wrong way” to get elected. “It's not the right path.” Brooks agreed, insisting that by not spending an inordinate amount of time, money and resources chasing swing voters, Clinton would be making a “mistake.” Worse, it's “bad” for “the country.”
Sure, she might be elected. Sure she might be able to lead the country in a direction she wants and beat back Republican initiatives she thinks are bad for the country. But it would all still be a terrible “mistake,” according to Brooks.
Why? The optics wouldn't be right. It's too "easy." Because entire presidencies are now determined by how elections are won. If races are won the “wrong” way, the four-year term is a waste. Because national elections in a deeply divided nation are supposed to be unifying events. Or something. (Did I mention this “narrow path” critique has been widely, widely ridiculed?)
But here's the thing: The campaign tactic of getting out the core supporters to vote in big numbers not only proved hugely successful for President Barack Obama, which means the Clinton team would be foolish to not try to replicate it, but that strategy was first championed by Karl Rove during President George Bush's 2004 re-election run. And guess what? The Beltway press toasted Rove as a political genius for the so-called “base” blueprint.
After winning just 47.9 percent of the vote in 2000 and after the United States Supreme Court had to step in and declare him the winner over Al Gore, Bush and his re-election team agreed upon a strategy aimed almost exclusively at energizing the Republican Party's conservative base, and not spend the general election campaign season wooing swing voters. “It was a pure and simple play to the Republican conservative base,” noted the Washington Post's Dana Milbank at the time.
Bush wanted to win every vote he won in 2000 and then add 4 million hardcore conservatives in the form of evangelicals who sat out the 2000 campaign. Bush and Rove weren't concerned with winning over swing voters. They were obsessed with uncovering existing GOP voters and getting them to the polls in 2004.
That base strategy is still appealing today, Why? A new voter study “finds that the nation has reached a partisan high, and voters on either side are not open to considering candidates from the other party,” the Washington Examiner reported this week.
In other words, math.
When Rove and Bush campaigned with a hyper-focus on their base voters and eked out a re-election win with 50.7 percent of the popular vote, did Fournier and Brooks object in real time? Did they wring their hands about what the long-term implications were for American democracy? They did not. Instead, Brooks and Fournier toasted Rove's electoral insights and success.
Here was Fournier, right after the 2004 election, tapping Rove as one of the night's big “winners”:
Rove, the White House political strategist Bush calls “The Architect.” He persuaded Bush to increase his 2000 vote totals by tailoring policies and politics to conservatives.
That same week in November 2004, Brooks, like Fournier, marveled at the Republican turnout victory and announced, “That's why I'm so impressed by Karl Rove.” In his column, Brooks noted the Times had detailed how Republicans had won the crucial state of Florida by producing “huge turnout gains.” Rove achieved that by focusing their “efforts on conservatives who had often failed to vote,” according to Times reporting.
Note that the headline for Brooks' tsk-tsk column this week about the Democratic base campaign strategy was “The Mobilization Error.” Yet after Bush won in 2004, Brooks clearly touted the Republicans' identical mobilization effort.
In fact, Brooks was in awe of it.