Articles and Analysis


So Now He Tells Us

Topics: 2006 , The 2006 Race

A quick follow-up on Karl Rove's contention in his now well-known interview with NPR's Robert Siegel:

I'm looking at 68 polls a week . . . and adding them up. I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House. You may end up with a different math but you are entitled to your math and I'm entitled to THE math.

Obviously, it didn't work out that way.  I discussed the topic here and in a subsequent interview on NPR's On the Media.  But now, thanks to Newsweek (via Kaus) we have the details on just Rove meant by "THE math:"

The polls and pundits pointed to a Democratic sweep, but Rove dismissed them all . . .He wasn't just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his "metrics" were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House—enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientists—to study just how wrong the polls were.

So there you have it.  Two plus two always adds to four, but sometimes our models and assumptions don't add up as well as we think they will.

Update: Adam Berinsky, an associate professor of political science at MIT, asks a good question in the comments:

Who were these Republican political scientists that were going to attend Rove's conference? I assume they were lined up before the election. If any of them are MP readers, it would be interesting to get their perspective?

I do not hear that as a rhetorical question. If any political scientists want to chime in on this issue, our "Guest Pollster Corner" is open and your comments would very much be welcome. Who knows, could Karl Rove himself be an MP reader?


Patrick Thompson:

I have a hard time believing Rove was this out of touch. It's more likely that he was keeping a stiff upper lip and staying positive to motivate the troops. Bush on the other hand, could have indeed been that out of touch, and I suppose it's possible Rove was spinning him.

Rove can be called stubborn but it would be at our peril to think him dumb. I'm sure there was encouragement in some of his metrics, but he knew the house was gone and held his breath like the rest of us to find out by just how much and whether the Democrats would run the table and take the Senate too (and the Governors, and the State Legislatures).

Am I just clinging to the fact that he must be quite smart and prescient to feel better about how badly and why we were so thoroughly defeated in 2002 and 2004 (and for that matter 2000)?

Perhaps, but we should not dismiss the fact that we were indeed thoroughly beaten in those years, and it was not just dumb luck on Rove's part.

Patrick Thompson
Hightstown NJ


Clark Miller:

I am unwilling to speculate on whether Rove was, indeed, out of touch or simply spinning. Mental models can, of course, be exceedingly powerful, especially when borne out by what appears to be calculative rationality. Then, again, statistics can be ... well ... statistics (as in "lies, d*** lies, and statistics).

I have to raise a question, however, about Patrick's assertion that "we were so thoroughly defeated in 2002 and 2004 (and for that matter 2000)". Have we been boondoggled all along into believing in Rove's genius?

Let's take stock: the Presidential election in 2000 was won by one of the narrowest margins in history, and in 2004 it wasn't exactly a landside, despite a President whose popularity after 9/11 had been in the stratosphere. One state goes the other way and we win.

When the democrats lost the majority in the House in 1994, it wasn't Rove at the helm, and while the democrats had won a few and lost a few seats since then, nothing major had happened in the House to dramatically change the tide.

The Senate, of course, is a different story. In 2002 and 2004 the democrats lost seats, putting them solidly in the minority from 2004-06. But we should remember that the Senate has had a much longer history of switches in the majority. We should also remember that the shift in the 1990s and early 2000s was mostly about conservative democrats either retiring or losing, as part of a long-term demographic shift. But that shift also coincided with the timing of rotating elections of 1/3 of the Senate, so that open seats in the South correlated with marginally good Republican years to change a few seats at a time.

But let's look at 2006. What happened? The same demographic shift continued, only this time it was moderate Republicans in Blue States and Conservative Republicans in Purple States whose elections happened to coincide with a good year for democrats, giving rise to losses. And I do not believe 2008 will not be an easy year for Republicans either, given the number of freshmen Republicans who will have to defend their seats. Indeed, overall, Republicans will have to defend 21 seats and democrats only 12.

So, while I am as unhappy about the last six years of elections (pre-dating this one) as anyone, I am increasingly skeptical that we were badly beaten in any of them. What Rove accomplished was to squeeze out narrow victories, not to soundly roust us. Does he really deserve the accolade of Genius? Or just Mighty Tactician?

Clark Miller
Tempe, AZ


Jeremiah J.:

"I have a hard time believing Rove was this out of touch."

Why? The guy is not a statistician, nor is he a scholar of voting behavior, or even a pollster. He is a smart political strategist who has digested wisdom from these fields. But he is hardly in a position to making swweping claims about the efficacy of polls with scant evidence. Rove gets called a genius for the same reason that every hot new football coach is a "genius"--he has some impressive wins, many people don't understand how he's doing it, and many of us believe that he's not working with very much talent. Like many football coaches and other everyday strategists, Rove has some good practical sense and a great familiarity with the game, but does not have the social scientific training or temperatment to evaluate and re-evaluate his basic operating assumptions. A true genius (e.g. say Machiavelli) has both. His '51% strategy' has a lot more to do with conservative ideology and the GOP response to Clintonism than it has to do with an objective evaluation of the most effective means of winning power.

The Republican loss last week was, vote-wise, much worse than those 2002 and 2004. Rove aggressively and successfully attacked Democrats in those two campaigns, but I fail to see what is so ingenious or original about this. We're so cynical today that Willie Horton- or Swift Boat-style ads are called "brilliant" by pundits and the media. I'll give him "bold" but not "all-wise". 9/11 put the Democrats on the defensive for at least three years--which led to the Iraq resolution, the 2002 losses, and the eventual defeat in 2004. Compare Bush to Clinton--unlike Bush, who had a favorable Congress and 9/11 to help him, has steadily declined in popularity except for two spikes (9/11 and Iraq). Clinton on the other hand had a determined, empowered legion of enemies and yet had over 60% approval on the eve of impeachment. Rove and Bush do not hold a candle to Clinton in terms of political strategy.


Gary Kilbride:

New political truism, for both sides: if you're losing in the polls, the cell phones work in your favor.

Meanwhile, it's curious that pre-election polling seems to have become more accurate as cell phones increase.

Perhaps there's a correlation; the type of person who misleads pollsters is also the type to switch to cell phone only.

I'm not sure if I'm serious about that, but what the hell.


Nadia :

According to a Pew study, cell phone users aren't very different from the general public.


Nick Panagakis:

"In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones."

Polls are also not subject to do-not-call list limitations.

The regulation specifically states that "opinion polls" are not prohibited from calling people on those lists.

Nick Panagakis


Mike Ray:

As one of the old timers having watched election since FDR, I don't see Rove as the great master. George won his first presidential election by ONE vote, a 5 to 4 vote in the Supreme Court - One vote. With the advice of his "hatchet man" Chaney and also Rumsfeld who were long time Washington job holders, he was advised by Chaney that "war time presidents" get reelected. Ten days after his inaugural, he was after Hussien (as per
Bush's Treasury Secty Paul O'Neill).
In both elections for Bush, the Independent Voter was the margin of election. They believed his lies and the Iraq War. Finally seeing the results of three years of stalemates, the Independent Voters began moving away from Bush. Rove had no control over the Independent Voter and the Iraq stalemate - so they joined with the Democrats.
Many of the moderate Republicans seeing the useless, costly situation in Iraq, moved over to vote with the Democrats, Indepents and Rove was too blind to see and hear the people speaking. When you only WANT to hear what you WANT to hear, you don't hear the dam bursting!


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