Karl Rove never sought to help Bush win a decisive victory. His strategy was 50 plus 1. The one exception was Hispanic outreach, which in 2004, helped Bush overcome Kerry. The base strategy is risky and even if you win, you will not be able to govern as Bush found out for his 2nd term. Barack Obama has adopted this tactic for his 2012 election. His strategy can be called tribalism. Divide Americans into different groups and hope the sum of the parts get you to 50 plus 1.
The blame here falls in large part on President Barack Obama, who after four years of economic lethargy needs to recast the election as anything other than what it naturally is: a referendum on the incumbent and the state of the nation.
To turn the page, he has revived the kind of divisive 50 percent–plus–one politics Bush political guru Karl Rove successfully championed in 2004. As former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon has observed, Obama is now following the same playbook used in 2004 against another Massachusetts faux blueblood, Sen. John Kerry. Like Obama, Bush was a polarizing president of meager accomplishments and modest popularity. And like Bush, Obama is hoping to rally his base and demonize his opponent to achieve a fairly comfortable reelection.
To do that, Obama is offering an array of appeals based on tribal totems—gay marriage, contraception, cheap loans for kids, charges of racism by his opponents. Every “grand” statement is aimed at specific groups, either to offer them something or to show how Romney would threaten their interests.
Of course, there are dangers to an ugly tribal win. While Bush significantly moderated his policies in his second term, he received little credit for that shift from the half of the country he’d alienated in 2004 and during his first four years in office.
Another politician who’s recognized the dangers of tribalism? Barack Obama, circa 2007:
“You’ve got to break out of what I call the 50-plus-1 pattern of presidential politics, which means you have nasty primaries where everyone’s disheartened, then you divide the country 45 percent on one side, 45 percent on the other, 10 percent in middle, all of whom live in Florida and Ohio,” Obama told the Concord Monitor.
“Then maybe you eke out a victory of 50 plus one. [But] you can’t govern.”
Obama is playing a dangerous game. He should ask Bush and Rove the consequences of 50 plus 1. Obama should know, he benefited from their failed strategy.