An Analysis Of Roveology

The Sunday before the 2004 election, some Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia living in the Cleveland area gathered at a suburban party center to eat deviled eggs and dark bread and hear Russian-language exhortations to re-elect George W. Bush. Jews generally vote heavily Democratic, but a few thousand of Greater Cleveland's immigrant Jews were especially receptive to the appeals of Republicans armed with a database of every Orthodox household in the area.

Elsewhere in Ohio, Bush did not get Felicia Hill's vote in 2004, but his campaign caused her to pause before voting for John Kerry, which is portentous. An African-American married to a unionized GM worker, Hill voted for Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton twice and Al Gore. But as a church member in a golfing community in a growing suburb where her children attend private schools, she was targeted for GOP courtship. Not until she was in the voting booth did she decide for Kerry. But next time?

These episodes, from what Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times call history's "most sophisticated presidential campaign," are recounted in their new book, "One Party Country," which argues that Democrats face "tremendous odds" in their quest to avoid "marginalization." Their book represents a burgeoning literary genre--studies of Roveology, which is the art of using what Republicans embrace, marketing information and what they theoretically are wary of, federal power, to elect more Republicans.

Bush's campaign had a database called Voter Vault for microtargeting ostensibly nonpolitical constituencies. Did you know that bourbon drinkers are disproportionately Republican and gin drinkers disproportionately Democratic? Karl Rove knows.

A few Jews in Cleveland, a smattering of Latinos in Orlando or union members in West Virginia--with custom-tailored messages to such slivers of the electorate, the Bush campaign accomplished something stealthy and cumulatively decisive. These slivers were trimmed from the Democratic base in so many places, "the shift," Hamburger and Wallsten write, "did not always register in national polls, or on the radar of Democratic strategists. It was the political equivalent of stealth technology in air power: Democrats would feel the bombs explode, but they could not see the bombers."

Politically, there are not two Americas, the Red and Blue states. There are countless constituencies to be courted with niche marketing. In a closely divided nation, with a small and shrinking number of truly unaffiliated voters, supremacy goes to the party with the best database and most nimble microtargeters.

Ronald Reagan won landslides, but Hamburger and Wallsten say "he never tried to engineer the kind of pervasive, long-term dominance" Bush and Rove seek. They want to build a basis of long-term dominance not dependent on regularly recurring charismatic leaders like Reagan. This is to be done by advancing conservative goals that also cripple the other party. For example, shielding businesses from excessive tort-liability lawsuits conforms to basic conservative values--and also slows the flow of money to the Democratic Party from its most lavish constituency, the trial lawyers.

Republicans have lost two of the last four presidential elections; their congressional majorities are small and vulnerable. So Hamburger and Wallsten's intel-ligent book has a dumb title. This is a closely divided country, and its divisions seem to be hardening. It is not close to being a "one-party country." Still, Ken Mehlman, GOP chairman, wonders: "If you get 51 percent, 51 percent, 51 percent, is that a durable majority?"

Durability is a matter of degree. The Republicans' post-Civil War dominance, and the Democrats' long ascendancy during and after the New Deal, ended. But 51 percent in presidential elections gives a party 100 percent of executive-branch power, 100 percent of the power to nominate members of the federal judiciary and ample power to help elect congressional majorities.

Hamburger and Wallsten know that "all presidents, at least since John Adams," have rewarded friends and handicapped adversaries, but they credit "Rove and his lieutenants" with an unprecedentedly ambitious politicization of "the day-to-day functioning of the executive branch." Republicans theo-retically favor much less government. But they use business skills of market segmentation to defeat Democrats by mastering the favor-dispensing and constituency-assembling power of the sprawling government that Democrats did so much to build and justify. Conservatives might say that while Democrats, whipsawed by Republicans wielding the power of big government, are get-ting what they deserve, Republicans do not deserve the dominance they are thereby achieving.

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