Election Fever

Republican Karl Rove and Democrat Jim Messina on the 2016 Presidential Election

Karl Rove and Jim Messina headline Ringling College Library Association's Town Hall.

By Pam Daniel February 4, 2016

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Rove and Messina at a press conference before their Town Hall conversation.

They may be on opposite sides of the political fence, but Republican mastermind Karl Rove and President Obama’s 2012 campaign strategist Jim Messina found plenty to agree upon at Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 3. In their conversation, moderated by former CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, Rove, looking fit and feisty, and the boyish-faced Messina gave Donald Trump high marks for his command of social media and ability to grab the spotlight. “I’d give him an A-plus-plus [for that],” said Messina. But when it comes to having a campaign strategy that actually converts voters to supporters, Trump earned a D-minus.

 For example, while Cruz and Rubio made sure they had people at every Iowa caucus to sing their praises and consolidate votes, “Trump had no one,” Rove said.

“There’s a difference between running rallies and running campaigns, and he’s having rallies,” said Messina, who said the biggest mistake is that Trump, with no experience or expertise, seems to be running the campaign himself. Messina, who heads a political action committee for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, joked that he was sorry to see Trump stumbling. “I wake up every morning and drop to my knees and pray, “Please, God, give me Donald Trump,” he said.

Rove, whose PAC opposes Hillary, replied, “God sometimes doesn’t give you what you want—there is a greater good.”

The two also emphasized the power of social media, which Messina said is now seven times more effective than television advertising. More than ever, people make their choices “based on what your friends and family think,” he says. At a press conference before the talk, he noted that 86 percent of undecided voters who moved to Obama in the final days before the 2012 election said they did so because of social media. But even though Messina’s mastery of social media is credited for much of President Obama’s success in 2012, “it’s a tactic, not an end,” he said. “All presidential elections are about only one thing—the candidates’ vision for the future.”

While acknowledging Bernie Sanders remarkable rise, both predicted that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and said the Republican spot is still up for grabs. When Attkisson pressed Rove to admit he’s backing Bush, he replied, “All I can say is I went to work for [the Bush family] at the age of 22 and have been living in mortal fear of Barbara Bush ever since.”

Brainy and data-driven, the two strategists are otherwise a study in contrasts. Rove, overflowing with confidence and often funny (he called the Presidential debates a combination of “Friday night football and wrestling matches”), charmed many in the audience, who applauded his prediction that Clinton’s e-mail troubles could fatally undermine Hillary Clinton. “She grates the hell out of me,” he added, in case there was any doubt.  But the soft-spoken Messina, who said he decided he wanted to be a campaign manager for the U.S. President way back in fourth grade, after managing a friend’s campaign for class president, countered that the e-mail issue doesn’t even register with undecided voters.

Despite their differences, Messina said, “Karl and I are both bullish about America’s future.” He and Rove also dismissed all the public angst about today’s contentious political climate. That’s been a constant throughout our history, said Rove. And Messina added, “We’re better because of our divisive politics.”

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