Mitt Romney's debate challenge: keeping Karl Rove on board

If Mitt Romney can't turn things around at Wednesday's debate, some observers speculate that he could see an exodus of donors and other supporters – including GOP mastermind Karl Rove.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is seen at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 27.

How high are the stakes for Mitt Romney in this Wednesday’s debate?

Well, here’s one increasingly talked-about scenario: If Mr. Romney fails to deliver a good (perhaps even great) performance, he may face more than just bad reviews. He could begin to see an exodus on the part of his major donors and other supporters – who may choose to put their money in the final month toward what they see as more winnable contests in the Senate and House.

In particular, many observers are wondering if Romney could find himself abandoned by one of his highest-profile backers: Karl Rove.

Mr. Rove runs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two of the best-financed super PAC/issue advocacy groups, which have so far lent crucial support to Romney by placing big ad buys on his behalf in swing states. According to a private presentation that Rove gave to donors in August, reported on by Bloomberg Businessweek, outside groups like his single-handedly prevented Romney from being crushed by President Obama’s campaign over the summer. Between mid-May and the end of July, Rove said, Mr. Obama’s campaign spent $111 million, to Romney’s $42 million. But Democratic outside groups spent just $18 million, whereas Republican groups like Rove’s spent $110 million.

In addition to offering financial support, Rove has been an unwavering vocal backer, offering strongly pro-Romney commentary during his appearances as an analyst on Fox News, for example, even during the GOP primary battle (which drew complaints from rival campaigns). 

But if Romney continues his slide in the polls – and can’t turn things around following Wednesday’s debate – some are betting that Rove, along with the Republican National Committee and others, may become unwilling to throw good money after bad and may start directing their remaining resources toward down-ballot races instead.

“Karl Rove. Every day, that’s the guy I’d be looking at if I were Mitt Romney,” conservative host Joe Scarborough declared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week. “If Karl Rove decides that this thing is lost at some point, he’s going to spend that money on saving the Republican House and [winning a] Republican Senate. And when that happens, you know, it all goes off the cliff for the Romney campaign.”

There are certainly precedents for this kind of jumping ship. Political handicapper Charlie Cook, in his National Journal column last week, compared the current presidential race to the 1996 contest between President Clinton and Bob Dole. “The next week or 10 days are ... critical for Romney and the GOP,” Mr. Cook wrote. “If things don’t turn around, a stampede could ensue reminiscent of 1996, when Republicans realized that Bob Dole was not going to defeat President Clinton. History could repeat itself.”

On the other hand, several factors may make this a harder decision for Romney’s backers than it was for Mr. Dole’s. For one thing, Romney is not nearly as far behind in the polls. In the fall of ’96, most polls showed Dole trailing Clinton by roughly 20 points, whereas Romney is currently trailing Obama by low to mid-single digits. Given the current polarization of America, even if Romney fails to close the gap in coming weeks, it seems unlikely that the bottom would ever completely fall out for him.

And to some extent, it was probably always in Rove’s game plan to put more money into Senate and House races toward the end of the campaign. Unlike the presidential contest, where opinions can get set pretty early in the cycle, voters are less likely to pay attention to down-ballot races until the final weeks. So in those races, last-minute ad spending can have an outsize impact.

In the August presentation for donors, Rove said he planned to spend $200 million on the White House, $70 million on Senate races, and $32 million on House races.   

The real question, though, is to what extent those numbers begin to shift. Even a relatively small move of resources away from Romney could have a big effect – both financial and psychological – for both sides. If Rove were to begin withdrawing support, it would send a signal that the race was probably over. Which means, for now, all eyes will remain on Rove. As an anonymous Democratic strategist memorably put it to Politico recently, “It ain’t over until Karl Rove sings.”

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