President Bush knew he was in for a rough night. As he settled down in front of the TV in the White House residence to watch the election results, the numbers were already grim. By 8 p.m., long before the polls closed out west, Bush realized it was over. "It looks like this is going to be a rout," he lamented to a handful of aides.
Downstairs in the West Wing, Karl Rove wasn't ready to concede anything. The president's political architect believed the GOP could hold on to slender majorities in the House and the Senate. He had history on his side: in 2004 he refused to believe the early exit polls while everyone else was resigned to defeat. This time he was convinced his numbers would come through again. But even Rove's optimism finally cracked when he took a gloomy call from an old friend working for Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida. Shaw won re-election two years ago by a 28-point margin; last week he was heading to a four-point defeat. At 11:01 p.m., Rove made the long walk to the residence. "We're losing the House," he told Bush. The president let out a long sigh and went to bed.
How did the man they call Bush's brain get it so wrong?
Rove's miscalculations began well before election night. The polls and pundits pointed to a Democratic sweep, but Rove dismissed them all. In public, he predicted outright victory, flashing the V sign to reporters flying on Air Force One. He wasn't just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his "metrics" were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House--enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republi-can political scientists--to study just how wrong the polls were.
His confidence buoyed everyone inside the West Wing, especially the president. Ten days before the elections, House Majority Leader John Boehner visited Bush in the Oval Office with bad news. He told Bush that the party would lose Tom DeLay's old seat in Texas, where Bush was set to campaign. Bush brushed him off, Boehner recalls. "Get me Karl," the president told an aide. "Karl has the numbers."
The numbers looked a lot less rosy to the other architect of the campaign--RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman. It was Mehl-man who built the much-vaunted turnout machine. But he feared that many inside the party were relying too much on technology, like voter databases, and had lost sight of the bigger picture: that voters were turning against them. "We've built a great new car, but the gasoline for the car isn't us; it's the candidates and the issues," Mehlman told NEWSWEEK. There was no bigger issue than the war, which Rove had pushed as a winning theme for the GOP. As he flew back to D.C. on a private jet two days before the elections, Mehlman scribbled his predictions on a card--not to be revealed until after the elections. His numbers were much closer than Rove's: the GOP would lose 23 in the House (5 short of the final tally), 5 in the Senate (1 shy) and 6 governors (spot on). Last week Mehlman announced he would step down and pursue opportunities in the private sector.
Rove blames complacent candidates for much of the GOP's defeat. He says even some scandal-tainted members won when they followed what he calls "the program" of voter contacts and early voting. "Where some people came up short was where they didn't have a program," he told NEWSWEEK. But even Rove concedes that there were several hardworking incumbents, like Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania's Eighth District, who simply couldn't overcome the odds. In an election overwhelmed by war and scandal, the program was no match for their party's problems.