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How, and What, Obama Won

Karl Rove; drawing by John Springs


Columbus, Ohio

Clamorous and overpowering, campaign images are vivid as dreams and vanish as quickly. Was it real, that huge white aircraft hangar in Columbus, Ohio, the night before the election? I’d raced there from downtown Columbus’s Nationwide Arena, where President Obama, introduced by Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z, his voice hoarse and his face worn, had addressed fifteen thousand or so enthusiastic, mostly young supporters. From the moment Springsteen had begun singing (“No retreat, baby, no surrender…”), they had risen to their feet, cheered, shouted and stomped, and, on hearing Romney’s name, lustily booed. (“Don’t boo—vote!” Obama had answered. “Folks can’t hear you boo, but they can hear you vote!”)

But the sound at Nationwide Arena, though the crowd was larger, had been nothing compared to the volcano of noise erupting in that aircraft hangar. Its white metal walls seemed to reverberate back the shouts and cheers (“One More Day! One More Day!”) of thousands of sweating partisans, packed cheek by jowl, hip to hip, the press of bodies becoming almost unbearable beneath the country music whining over the tinny sound system—until finally, blessedly, a bit of breeze seeped in and the realization swept visibly through the throng that the great hangar doors were slowly clattering open to reveal an enormous blue and white airliner—his plane!—rumbling directly into the crowd. Or trying to rumble in, for as the cheers rose to an almost unendurable pitch, the pilot managed to miss the door, backed up, revved his engines, and on a second try barely nosed his way in. And then the stairway is wheeled up and the door opens and, waving and beaming to the whining, deafening strains of “Born Free,” out comes…the next president of the United States!

Mitt Romney is a handsome man and, in a slightly exaggerated, Senator Forehead kind of way, truly does look like he was born to be president. What strikes one, though, at this impossibly sound-drenched moment in a Columbus aircraft hangar on the evening before the election, is that along with this crowd of deliriously certain supporters, the candidate himself, in his benevolent, confident gaze over the crowd, appears completely convinced that he will indeed be elected president the next day.

On this election eve I receive incredulous, faintly hostile stares when I ask supporters whether they think Romney will be elected tomorrow. “What do you mean?” a young blond woman in her thirties asks me in turn, stopping in her tracks, her pretty face crunching into perplexity. “How do you…just what are you asking?” She’d been friendly as we’d chatted but in the chill half-light outside the hangar I see her face darken, as she realizes I really am one of them—one of the heathen, unbelieving press, who have been penned inside a little holding area in the midst of the crush, crouching over laptops or perching behind cameras under uniformly unforgiving stares.

It is a peculiarity of this election that the Republicans embraced up until and indeed after the moment of voting a conviction that the entire public information and polling apparatus of the country, with a few exceptions, was lying. “All of it, the reporters, the commentators, all the damn so-called ‘news’—and the polls, especially the polls, you can’t trust any of it,” a retired businessman told me in early October at a Romney rally in Port St. Lucie, Florida. “I mean, who the hell are they talking to? Not any of us, certainly,” he said, sweeping his arm in an arc around him. And, turning away, “They’re all in the bag for Obama. Can’t believe a word of it.”

This was in the wake of the first debate, when Obama, faltering and shuffling about behind his podium with downturned eyes, had shown himself to be what they had always known he was: a myth and a fraud, a dark nightmare version of the tiny wizard quailing behind the immense Oz-like image built of him in 2008 and still sustained by the press and the commentariat and the grasping members of the 47 percent. “You saw what he really was, once you take away his teleprompter”—I heard this again and again from Romney supporters. Obama was a fake, a fabrication of the liberal media and of those who drew sustenance from the programs of dependency he distributed like so much candy. When Romney first uttered the president’s name at Port St. Lucie, a beefy T-shirted young man behind me, a football player by the well-fed looks of him, cupped his hands about his mouth and roared out, “He’s an idiot!”—convulsing the entire all-white crowd in laughter.

The notion of a pervasive constructed world of falsehood and illusion built on the fabrications of the press and the liberal establishment has long been central to the American far right.1 And since Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater before him, the knowledge that its supporters have their own truth, that they are forced to battle continually against an intensively propagandized false reality, has been a vital energizing trump of “movement” Republicans. It means that Republicans, whether in power or not, are always in opposition. Even when they hold the White House and Congress, still the great bulk of the news media in New York and Washington with its vaunted “objectivity”; the culture industry in New York and California with its Hollywood vulgarity and easy virtues; the permanent bureaucracy of unionized government employees and teachers with their sinecures and perks—all remain immovably liberal. Republicans, “in power” or not, are forced to struggle always to conquer false truth, and that constant struggle has been a source of great motivating mobilizing power, as we last saw during the town meetings against the health care bill in the summer of 2009 and the Tea Party electoral triumph that followed.

Of course occasionally into these great self-sustaining master narratives comes a rude interruption from something…real. Holding my hands over my ears as I gazed at Romney’s plane struggling to make its resplendent way into the Columbus hangar I suddenly thought of George W. Bush’s flight-suited swagger against the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003: the Lincoln, within sight of the California coast, had been carefully turned so that live shots of the triumphant “war president” would not reveal the cityscape of San Diego—but on the other side of the globe Baghdad was being looted and all the Leni Riefenstahl “Mission Accomplished” moments in the world would not prevent Americans from eventually realizing that the Iraq war was an unholy mess: a war of choice badly planned, catastrophically executed, and impossible to escape. It took a year or more and a couple thousand American lives, and in the meantime President Bush, after a negative, base-dependent campaign not all that different from Obama’s this year, scraped to reelection.

Reality’s reemergence in the 2012 election followed a more precise timeline. Before the polls closed, Romney’s campaign was pointing to clear victory:

On a midafternoon conference call with political insiders, Romney campaign brass ticked off a list of data points about turnout—in mega-swing states such as Colorado, Ohio and Florida—that they called signs that victory was at hand. They warned that people shouldn’t take the media consortium exit polling too seriously, since it would most likely be wrong.2

Unfortunately, the campaign’s own highly touted get-out-the-vote operation, presided over by an elaborate “state-of-the-art” data manager dubbed Project ORCA, had already shown itself to be “dysfunctional.” “At the end of the day,” a Romney worker told Politico, “they told us that every single swing state was looking either pink or red and the worst one was Virginia, where they were a little concerned.”

Romney and reality were still traveling along parallel tracks, not touching. “The polling we had. The numbers we were looking at looked like we stood a pretty good chance of winning,” Paul Ryan said later. “So, when the numbers came in, going the other direction. When we saw the turnout that was occurring in urban areas which were really fairly unprecedented, it did come as a bit of a shock.”3

In truth, this “turnout…in urban areas” was not far from a repeat of 2008. And for the Republicans, that was the problem: 2008 was the mythical year, the illegitimate year, the year of illusions when a young unknown African-American community organizer and senator-for-a-minute with virtually no experience managed to hoodwink the American electorate and, with the help of two unpopular wars and an economic catastrophe, seize the White House. All the confident and specific predictions of a Romney landslide by prominent conservatives like Michael Barone, George Will, Karl Rove, and Dick Morris were built on the conviction that 2008 could not be repeated.4 As Morris said later:

All of my analysis of the polling that suggested to me…that in fact Obama would lose by a significant margin were all based…on the assumption that they were wrong, the media was wrong, in saying that there would be the same high level of black, Latino, and young voter turnout in 2012 that there was in ’08…. I figured that ’08 was just an excrescence….5

This “excrescence” theory was central to Governor Romney’s own conception of the electorate, which also envisioned many fewer Democrats voting. Obama’s base, disillusioned, would stay away from the polls. The winner, therefore, would be the candidate who won the independents—which Romney indeed managed to do, by five points, though in the end it didn’t matter because he was overwhelmed by turnout among the decidedly undisillusioned Democratic base.6

This was not the only way that 2012 recalled Bush’s close reelection in 2004, masterminded as it was by Karl Rove, then Bush’s “political brain” and now the most powerful Super PAC Republican fund-raiser. Though it is not clear when exactly it dawned on the Romney-Ryan team that those actually turning out to vote on election day were not conforming to their models, Americans were able to witness, in real time, the astonishing moment when reality, staved off for months by models and self-serving predictions, finally swooped down and smacked Karl Rove on the top of his head.

The drama, which immediately went viral as “Karl Rove’s Public Meltdown on Fox,” began at 11:25 eastern time, when Fox called Ohio for Obama and Rove, who had, said anchor Chris Wallace, “a rooting interest” in the decision—presumably the hundreds of millions he had raised to elect Mitt Romney and the calls he was even then fielding from campaign officials—expressed strong skepticism. “Even if they have made [the prediction] on the basis of select precincts,” said Rove, “I’d be very cautious about intruding in this process….”

And yet the polls had long since closed. Did Rove fear that an early prediction could shape a post-election political struggle (as Florida, prematurely called for Bush, had in 2000)? At Fox, whose broadcasters had for months been promoting a rock-hard certainty about a Romney victory, something very odd now unfolded:

Bret Baier (anchor): Karl Rove said we should figure out what the deal is with this decision desk….
Megyn Kelly: …We’ll do a little interrogation and see if they stand by their call, notwithstanding the doubts that Karl is attempting to place….

With cameras in tow, Kelly walked down bare hallways where several eager number crunchers awaited her:

Kelly: Is this possibly an exit poll thing…?
Arnon Mishkin: What we’re looking at is actual raw vote, by county by county, city by city, and what we’re seeing is sufficient vote in Ohio on the Democratic side to mean that Ohio will go for Obama.
Kelly: Percent certainty?
Mishkin: 99.95 percent….

The camera moves back to the desk where Baier is watching a furiously scribbling Rove:

Baier: …I’ve just called Karl back up from the, and he’s coming back up here to the desk. He’s crunching numbers, he’s writing furiously, he’s pointing at Bill Hemmer. A lot of things are going on right now….
We’re going to “tee” the graphic there. “Barack Obama Re-Elected President.” That’s our call. From the decision desk. As you saw, Megyn Kelly just walking down to talk to them. The White House, there is already a crowd in front of the White House…1600 Pennsylvania Avenue….

Fox, following NBC and MSNBC, calls the election for Obama. Rove, still scribbling, protests:

Rove: But again I just wonder when you’re sitting there with…a difference [of] 49.19 to 49.17, if a little bit of caution might not be better until…I mean, if it’s gonna happen let the votes begin to show it…and start to see some of that separation so you’re validating it…. In terms of public perception, it looks a little odd for us to be making a call with 991 votes….

Watching this extraordinary scene play out from Jacksonville, Florida—where the votes from the enormous turnout were still being counted and where the election would not be called for days—I heard the soft sound of a loop being pulled tight, as I recalled the most telling quotation of the entire Bush era, words about “creating reality” uttered in the months before the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush. They describe a dialogue between the reporter Ron Suskind and a then anonymous Bush “aide” who was none other than Karl Rove:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”7
  1. 1

    See Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 1996). 

  2. 2

    See Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns, “Mitt Romney’s ORCA Program Couldn’t Stay Afloat,” Politico, November 9, 2012. 

  3. 3

    See Tom Kludt, “Ryan: It ‘Looked Like We Stood a Pretty Good Chance of Winning’ on Election Day,” TPM LiveWire, November 13, 2012. 

  4. 4

    See, for example, Michael Barone, “Prediction: Romney Beats Obama, Handily,” National Journal, November 5, 2012. See also “Eight Conservatives Predicting a Romney Victory Tomorrow,” Fairfaxunderground.com. 

  5. 5

    See Dick Morris, “Why I Goofed! Dick Morris TV: Lunch Alert!,” Dick Morris.com, November 7, 2012. 

  6. 6

    See John Dickerson, “Why Romney Never Saw It Coming,” Slate, November 9, 2012. 

  7. 7

    Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. 

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