Karl Rove: Here Are the 2 Tactical Fails That Cost Romney the Election

The GOP strategist says he tried to signal to the Romney campaign that it should change course, but they didn't follow his lead.
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A lot has been said about why Mitt Romney lost the presidential election, from his failure to turn out more white working-class voters to his failure to win more of the Latino voters who did turn out. Republican strategist Karl Rove offered the latest take Thursday in remarks detailing how he tried, from his perch at an outside group forbidden by law from coordinating with the campaign, to signal to Romney's team that they should make changes in course and defend their candidate more fiercely.

"No election can be blamed on one single thing ... that's not the way politics works," Rove said during an Aspen Ideas Festival conversation with Atlantic Editor in Chief James Bennet. At core, however, "This was a tactical failure."

The Obama campaign had decided in March and April, Rove said, that it couldn't win on the basis of the economy, Obamacare, or the president's prospective vision -- so it made "a grand bet: We have to take a fifth of our campaign, almost 200 million dollars, and go irradiate Mitt Romney."

It was a gamble, because by the time Labor Day rolled around, "they wouldn't have time to do something else," he said. (If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the strategy George W. Bush pursued against John Kerry in 2004.)

"I think this is one of the critical moments because Romney needed to defend Bain Capital. He needed to be out there" talking about his turnaround successes with companies people could identify with, Rove said, such as Staples and a steel mill in Indiana.

"At Crossroads, we watched for three weeks while they assaulted Bain. And you can't talk to the campaigns directly. You can't coordinate with to them. But you can play bridge. So after about three weeks we said we think this is hurting, so why don't we signal to them."

So Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC went out and ran $9.3 million worth of ads in July 2012 in 14 battleground states fighting back against the Obama campaign attacks, using a Washington Post editorial that said they were overblown.

"We were trying to signal to the Romney campaign, if you want to engage on this, you lead, we'll follow. Now they can't talk to us, but they can talk to the press. And the press immediately would call us up and say, we just talked to the Romney campaign about your ad and they say first of all, the issue's not hurting us and B, in politics, if you're responding, you're losing. Well, a lot of times in politics if you're responding you're winning," Rove continued.

"We decided wrongly that they were right and so we didn't proceed. And we should have."

The other critical moment for the Romney campaign came around the time of the Republican National Convention, when Romney's aides put Clint Eastwood in prime time but relegated Romney's old friends and people whom he'd helped -- such as the Oparowskis, an elderly Mormon couple whose dying cancer-striken 14-year-old son was lifted by Romney's friendship -- to early speaking slots where they made little national impression.

This was part and parcel of the broader issue: "We needed to know more about Mitt Romney. We needed to know more about him. There's a natural reticence among too many candidates on the Republican side to show everybody who they are."

Rove watched as Pat Oparowski finished her convention remarks and turned to see Bill O'Reilly was crying when she concluded, "as were most of the people in the arena."

Rove's Crossroads GPS worked with the Oparowskis on a positive ad about the Mitt Romney they knew that made a direct appeal to viewers to vote for Romney (the ad aired in late October).

"It is a powerful ad. It is unbelievably authentic and sincere and I mean you learn so much about Romney by listening to people talk about him and it cost us 14 million dollars to put it in 11 battleground states," said Rove. "But why were we doing it? The Romney campaign should have been doing it."

It wasn't even a question of money spent. Romney's refusal to talk personally and turn the negative of his family's Olympic-caliber dressage horse, Rafalca, into a story about his wife's health instead of his money was another squandered opportunity, Rove said. Instead of saying "what he's occasionally said in private" about the prospect of losing the love of his life and mother of his children to Multiple Sclerosis, how scared he was, and how the doctors said that MS patients who ride regularly see improvements in their vestibular system, he shut down and didn't want to talk about it. "I don't care what happens here in London because in the Romney household we long ago awarded Rafalca the golden medal," Rove imagined Romney saying. He should have gotten personal and defended his family's ownership of the animal, "instead of saying, hey I'm a rich guy. You don't know that and I'm going to quickly get away from it" by saying little about the horse.

"The problem is when you run for president the American people want to know who you are inside and Romney didn't share who he was inside," Rove said. "Instead we're left with a guy ... who had an elevator in a garage for his cars in his La Jolla home."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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