From Karl Rove to the Big Lie: GOP loves to claim victory when they feel insecure
Karl Rove speaks to Fox News (screen grab)

One more day until the voting is done. Hallelujah! When the polls are so tight and the campaigning so intense you reach a point where you almost don't care who wins anymore and just want it to be over. But of course you do care, as we all must in this age of authoritarian right-wing, lunacy.

I wrote on Friday that nobody really knows anything about this election. It could go either way. It might be a close result or one side could sweep both houses of Congress with big wins. But if you just read the headlines and listen to the pundits and strategists on TV, you'd think the evidence showed clearly that Republicans were running away with it. There's a reason for that: Republicans plant this notion in the press and the sad-sack Democrats play into it by prematurely assembling the circular firing squad whenever a race is close.

You see headlines like "Democrats fear midterm drubbing as party leaders rush to defend blue seats," but the fact that Donald Trump held big rallies just days before the election in Florida and Pennsylvania, where the GOP is defending numerous seats, isn't framed the same way. There's "CNN panelist predicts 'bad night,' says Democrats didn't 'listen' to voters throughout the election" while the New Yorker publishes a widely-read article headlined "Why Republican Insiders Think the G.O.P. Is Poised for a Blowout."

Maybe it's all true. Maybe it will turn out that Democrats have blown the election (even though all the fundamentals and historical precedents suggest defeat was more or less preordained) and maybe the Republicans played a masterful hand (in winning an election everyone assumed was already in the bag). We will see. But let's not kid ourselves about what is going on in these final days. Republicans are playing the press for chumps, as they do every single time. Of course they may win, but this election is close and they're not soothsayers. It's a deliberate strategy.

Let's not kid ourselves about what is going on in these final days. Republicans are playing the press for chumps, as they do every single time. It's a deliberate strategy.

The most famous purveyor of this strategy was Karl Rove, also known as "Bush's Brain," the strategist who eked out a history-changing victory for his guy in 2000. Rove was a big believer in the "bandwagon effect," which assumed that a significant chunk of the voting public wlli go with those they perceive as winners. So when a race is close you put on a big show to pretend that you're confident of winning, in the hopes of getting any last-minute wobblers or people who might not otherwise vote to get behind your team. It's fun to win! In close races, Rove reasoned, this strategy might just make the difference. But it's not scientific and nobody should take a GOP strategist's word for anything in the final days of a campaign. They're just spinning.

Rove even went so far as to send George W. Bush to California in the final days of the 2000 campaign, to convince the press that they were so confident of a blowout that they were hoping to expand the map into deep blue states. The New York Times blared, "A Confident Bush Says He Can Win California's Vote." As it turned out, Al Gore won the state by double digits, leading observers to wonder whether Rove should have sent Bush to Florida instead, the state he ended up "winning" by only 537 (disputed) votes. They did the same thing four years later by sending Dick Cheney to Hawaii, and the Los Angeles Times dutifully reported, "Aloha State Has Become a Surprise Campaign Battleground." Um, no. It hadn't. Democrats won Hawaii by nine points, as per usual.

Rove didn't just deploy this strategy for election campaigns. As Bush's senior adviser, he played the same game with public opinion over the war with Iraq:

In shaping their message, White House officials have drawn on the work of Duke University political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. Feaver, who served on the staff of the National Security Council in the early years of the Clinton administration, joined the Bush NSC staff about a month ago as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform.
Feaver and Gelpi categorized people on the basis of two questions: "Was the decision to go to war in Iraq right or wrong?" and "Can the United States ultimately win?" In their analysis, the key issue now is how people feel about the prospect of winning. They concluded that many of the questions asked in public opinion polls — such as whether going to war was worth it and whether casualties are at an unacceptable level — are far less relevant now in gauging public tolerance or patience for the road ahead than the question of whether people believe the war is winnable.

That helps explain the infamous 2003 Bush gaffe with "Mission Accomplished." That didn't work out in the long run because Republicans couldn't deny reality forever as the Iraq war began to go south shortly after that. But the press was gullible enough, and the public stayed on board long enough, for the Bush team to win re-election and support the "surge" that prolonged the war. It's simple enough: If you call yourself a winner, people will believe it (at least for a while) and will act accordingly.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

We're in a new landscape these days with election denial prominently featured on the menu. (Karl Rove is actually getting booed as a RINO sellout at GOP rallies.) The bandwagon effect is still in play but they now have a back-up: the Big Lie. It's not overly cynical to suspect that a whole lot of the happy talk coming from Republican strategists whispering in reporters' ears about how great their private polling looks is just a set-up for the possibility that they won't do as well as they would like. As we already know, their voters are fully indoctrinated to believe that Democrats can only win if they cheat, and Republicans have created a full-scale election denial operation to challenge any negative results they don't like. In some instances, they have challenged election systems in counties Trump won by double digits! Election denial has become the party's primary organizing principle.

All of this has been aided and betted by Republican pollsters flooding the zone this cycle and right-leaning aggregators like Real Clear Politics which have helped to set sky-high Republican expectations. As the Atlantic's Ron Brownstein quipped on Twitter:

None of this is accident or coincidence. The strategy is clear: In a close race, pretend you're winning in hopes of enticing voters to jump on board. If that doesn't work, claim the election was stolen and deny the legitimacy of your opponent's victory. This is just what they do. Why the press allows itself to be manipulated this way, year after year, is another question. Media folks can't possibly fail to understand what's going on, after all this time. On some level, they fall for it because they like it.