Karl Rove on why Romney lost: Obama was 'suppressing the vote'

GOP strategist Karl Rove used provocative words to describe one reason he believes Obama won. By 'suppressing the vote,' Rove appeared to mean that negative ads about MItt Romney tamped down enthusiasm for the GOP nominee.

Tony Gutierrez/AP/File
In this April 2011 file photo, Karl Rove leads a panel discussion at SMU, in Dallas. The Fox News analyst and Bush policy adviser publicly questioned his network's call of the election for Barack Obama on election night.

Conservative political strategist Karl Rove has used a provocative phrase to explain how Mitt Romney lost the presidential election Tuesday, saying President Obama won reelection “by suppressing the vote.”

Really? Few others make that assertion about the Obama victory.

And normally, the words voter suppression refer to efforts by the politically powerful to make it harder for people – especially people who might oppose the politically powerful at the polls – to cast ballots. The online reference Wikipedia defines it as tactics that "can range from minor ‘dirty tricks’ that make voting inconvenient, up to blatantly illegal activities that physically intimidate prospective voters to prevent them from casting ballots.”

Mr. Rove, a force behind big-money ad campaigns aligned with Republican candidates, appeared to redefine the term. 

Appearing on Fox News Thursday, Rove implied that Obama’s suppression strategy was to make Romney unlikeable, so that the Republican’s potential supporters wouldn’t show up to vote for him.

“He succeeded by suppressing the vote, by saying to people, 'you may not like who I am, and I know you can’t bring yourself to vote for me, but I’m going to paint this other guy as simply a rich guy who only cares about himself,' ” Rove said.

By his definition of suppression, it sounds just like traditional “opposition research” and negative advertising. Does Rove (himself a purveyor of negative ads in his work for George W. Bush and now at the Crossroads GPS group) have some different point to make, or is this just sour grapes over the election outcome?

Fox News host Megyn Kelly responded to Rove. “But I mean [Obama] won, Karl, he won.”

Before she interjected, Rove had also said this: Obama has become “the first president in history to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote” than four years before. 

That doesn’t necessarily prove anything about vote suppression. But it leads into a broader, and legitimate, debate.

Whether one calls it suppression or not, there’s genuine hand-wringing among Republicans over what some call the “missing voter” conundrum – a dearth of white-voter turnout that caught many by surprise.

Although ballot counts for African-Americans, other nonwhites, and Hispanics all appear to have risen in 2012 compared with 2008, the number of white voters seems to have declined by 6 million or more. Sean Trende, an election analyst at RealClearPolitics, estimates the number of white no-shows is even larger once you account for the population changes, as well as for the 2012 ballots that remain uncounted.

“We find ourselves with about 8 million fewer white voters than we would expect given turnout in the 2008 elections and population growth,” Mr. Trende wrote Thursday. (Whites were the voters for whom Romney had the biggest appeal.)

The no-show pattern surprised many conservatives, who thought their base was energized to vote.

The definitive story of why the expected voters didn't materialize, and how much impact it had on the outcome, remains to be unearthed. Negative ads against Romney might have played a role. And by some early accounts, one big factor was Republicans' failure to mount successful "get out the vote" efforts in key states.

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