The Real Reason Why Rove Went Into Denial on Election Night

Karl Rove
Karl Rove listened to The National's track "Walk it Back." He was not impressed. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Election Night 2012, Democrats had more than the reelection of President Obama to celebrate. Karl Rove, the mastermind Republican strategist hated and feared by Democrats, had a meltdown live on Fox News.

A new documentary, "Mitt," Greg Whiteley's film of Mitt Romney and his family during his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids, released on Netflix on Friday, sheds more light on that bizarre incident.

Rove's famous hissy-fit took place when the network called the state of Ohio for Obama, putting the president over the 270 electoral votes needed to win reelection. Rove argued that Fox's analysts had acted prematurely.

To resolve the awkward, on-air stand-off, host Megyn Kelly asked the analysts at the Fox "decision desk" how sure they were Obama really would win Ohio and the election.

The final scenes of "Mitt" center around Romney and his family on election night, realizing early on he was going to lose. The scenes also show a dialogue between Romney's top aides and Rove and indicate that the Romney campaign finally asked Rove to back down and let Romney concede with dignity.

The timing of events in the hours leading to Romney's concession speech are muddled in Whiteley's documentary. At one point on the evening of election night, the film flashes a time stamp of three hours until polls close on the West Coast, which means 8 p.m. eastern time. A second later, a number of Romney's aides enter the room where Romney and his family are waiting. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades delivers the bad news. The electoral math had come down to Ohio, which Rhoades tells Romney will end up in Obama's column.

"We talked to [Ohio Republican] Senator [Rob] Portman. He thinks that we're going to have a margin that we can't catch up to in Ohio. We might come up just short there," Rhoades told Romney. "We just don't want you to look like some, you know, John Kerry," he said, a reference to the 2004 Democratic nominee who did not concede until the morning after the election.

"Ed talked to Karl," Rhoades continues, presumably referring to Romney's senior advisers Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove. "Karl was the last of the guys out there fighting. And Karl knows now that the numbers aren't there and he's going to speak now."

"He's going to make clear on Fox News that the Ohio numbers -- we can't catch up with what's coming in," another adviser who is off-camera chimes in.

The next scene shows Romney beginning to draft his concession speech. The timing, as shown in "Mitt," would indicate that Rove went against the request of the Romney campaign later that night when he continued to argue that Ohio was still up in the air, denying the campaign their desire to concede in a timely and courteous manner.

In 2012, Rove was famous not only for his work getting George W. Bush elected twice, but also as co-founder of a powerful super PAC called American Crossroads and its sister nonprofit Crossroads GPS, which together poured hundreds of millions into supporting Romney and other Republicans. Rove co-founded the groups with Gillespie, who advised Romney and last week launched his own U.S. Senate bid in Virginia.

But it's also possible that the documentary shows the events that night out of order and that the time stamp is misleading. For one thing, the reference to Rove from Romney's campaign aides sounds more like something they would say at the end of the night, not the beginning. Another reason is that Ann Romney appears to be in that shot wearing the dress she wears for Romney's concession speech, whereas during the drafting of the speech that evening, she is wearing a different outfit. Did Ann Romney change into her red dress, then put on black pants, then put the red dress back on? It's possible but seems unlikely.

The next time stamp in the documentary comes at 10 p.m. eastern time, or one hour before polls close on the West Coast. An aide on the phone with Rhoades gets instructions not to call Obama yet to concede.

"Why?" Romney asks, entering the room just as the phone call ends.

One of Romney's sons mentions that Karl Rove doesn't believe it's over yet. "Why? If we lost Ohio," Ann Romney interjects. Son Tagg Romney and the candidate mutter about "prolonging the agony." No one seems to believe they still have a chance. Still, they continue to watch the numbers in Ohio and Colorado over the next two hours. Ann Romney is wearing the red dress.

Around 11:15 p.m., they decide to wait a little longer. Someone comments that they don't want to repeat Al Gore's mistake in 2000 of conceding too soon. This bit is not shown chronologically but is in fact the opening scene of the film.

Rove's behavior on Fox was widely interpreted as a way to save face with the Republican donors, who no doubt wanted to see at least a close race after having donated so much money.

Versions of what happened that night began to appear shortly after the election. According to reporting in the Boston Globe, it was Rove on Fox who kept Romney hoping until the early hours of the morning. According to New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, Rove and the Romney team had been in contact the entire evening of the election, and that this led the Romney team to complain to Fox when they called Ohio for Obama.

"Instantly, Fox phones lit up with angry phone calls and emails from the Romney campaign, who believed that the call was premature, since tallies in several Republican-leaning Southern counties hadn't been been fully tabulated. 'The Romney people were totally screaming that we're totally wrong,' one Fox source said," reported Sherman.

In May of last year, Ann Romney said in a CBS interview it was Rove who was keeping the campaign's hope alive. "He's like, 'Don't give up, don't give up. We're gonna win Ohio. And, you know, it's gonna turn around,'" she recalled.

The two scenes from "Mitt" don't clear up the incident entirely. But they do confirm Rove was in touch with the Romney camp through Gillespie, with whom he had founded American Crossroads. They also show a campaign that was listening to Rove, rather than the other way around.

Either Rove was asked by the campaign not to protest the results but did so anyway, going against the campaign's wishes for how the night should go. Or, Rove fought the Ohio results so long that even the Romney team, initially willing to believe that Rove might be right, eventually gave up and told Rove to do the same.

No one at One Potato Productions, Whiteley's production company, or Netflix, responded to multiple requests for comment.

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