Why 2012 might be the most divisive election in modern history

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

In 2004, Karl Rove surmised that George W. Bush’s re-election chances hinged on increasing the turnout of Bush’s base (as opposed to motivating and persuading undecided voters). The presumption was that in a polarized world, there weren’t enough Americans left who didn’t already have an opinion about Bush to swing an election. As such, driving base “turnout” was key.

Rove’s theory was probably correct; Bush won.

Today, as the economy shows little sign of recovery before Election Day, President Obama may be forced to come to the same conclusion as Rove — setting up what would likely be an ugly and divisive re-election effort.

As MSNBC noted, in a recent Gallup poll, Obama, “won only 32 percent approval among white voters, who account for about three-quarters of the electorate.” That means 68 percent of white voters essentially disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. In politics, it is easier to motivate someone who already likes you to go to the polls than it is to persuade someone who opposes you to change his mind. (Moreover, those who disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy are unlikely to be persuaded by anything other than results.) This all adds up to an unfortunate conclusion: Obama’s smart strategic move may be to copy the Karl Rove playbook.

This would have consequences. Rove’s strategy helped Bush win re-election, but it did little to unite Americans. Moreover, base motivation often includes racial and cultural components that transcend ideology. Obama’s campaign would (if they are smart) presumably conduct a sub rosa “targeted” campaign to black and Hispanic voters — presumably, incorporating Spanish and African-American media outlets. Since the goal of such an effort would be to drive increased voter turnout for these blocs of voters, the most effective method would likely be to demonize Obama’s Republican opponent (as someone once said, “logic leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to action”).

What often goes unstated is that, if the election is a referendum on Obama and his policies, he probably loses. So the smart bet is for Obama to spend his war chest — not talking about his positive attributes — but instead, demonizing his Republican opponent. This would presumably also have the happy result of suppressing some of the disenchanted voters who fall outside of Obama’s base. (One could imagine the conservative backlash that would ensue once word spread of this targeted, clandestine strategy; Obama could end up with less than 32 percent of the white vote before it’s over.)

Playing into this perfect storm is the fact that Texas governor Rick Perry is surging in the polls. For a variety of reasons, Perry would presumably run a tougher, more aggressive campaign against Obama than John McCain did. While he is charismatic and personally likeable, as a swaggering Texan, he is stylistically a stark contrast with Obama.

Should he win the GOP nomination, one can imagine that a Perry vs. Obama match would be the ultimate culture clash. Aside from the obvious differences (race and ideology, for example), this match up (as opposed to an Obama/Romney battle) would also pit a professorial style versus a folksy style — and rural values versus urban values. And this, of course, would all play out in a parallel media world (Fox News and MSNBC, respectively).

Obama versus Perry would be the red state/ blue state dichotomy on steroids.

Maybe there really are two America’s?

We may very well be on the cusp of a presidential election that might be better described as a “culture war.” Just as meteorologists can sometimes predict the ingredients of a storm brewing weeks in advance, it’s hard not to notice that the groundwork is being laid for a perfect storm of political negativity and divisiveness.

“Slash and burn” may very well replace “hope and change” before it’s all over.

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