Martin Luther King Jr. and Karl Rove — two very different men with very different purposes in life.
And Barack Obama owes a huge debt to both men.
Obama’s march towards the Democratic nomination is based on a strategy that creates a hybrid of King’s coalition of supporters and Rove’s election strategy.
For those who don’t know, Rove is George Bush’s election guru and the most powerful Republican strategist of the past 15 years. (If you don’t know who King is then stop reading this post, find a mirror, look at your reflection and realize that you are one of the most ignorant people on the face of the earth.)
Both Rove and King knew how to build support and to do it in such a way that the end result was sweeping victory.
For King, it was a matter of attracting the right people to his message of change and equality.
He knew he would have the African American support, but he also knew he would have to make those people believe they could succeed, if he was going to get people marching in the streets and taking chances with their lives.
So, he tapped into another group of influential Americans — white, upper-middle class folks who had the comfort of wealth and so were less fearful of change.
That coalition of people formed the core of King’s civil rights campaign and they fed off each other over time, gaining strength and forming a key constituency that could be counted on to help make the case for equality to the people in power and to other Americans.
That same coalition of African Americans and affluent whites forms the core of Obama’s supporters, and he has used them to help propel his message in a year where he was told he couldn’t win and yet finds himself on the cusp of doing just that.
But King forged ahead on his moral mission for an entire lifetime, and he did it outside the confines of politics and Washington power.
So, in and of itself, creating a coalition like King’s wouldn’t be enough for Obama.
That’s where Rove comes in.
Rove realized about 15 years ago that because of the American electoral system, which is a form of proportional representation based on population, a party didn’t need to win a bunch of big states to win the White House.
His genius was to see the shifting nature of the American electorate and realize that there were enough votes in the small states to push the GOP over the top.
So, he built a strategy that basically amounted to winning all of the small and medium states and stealing one or two big states.
The beauty of the system is that it costs less (smaller media markets, so cheaper ads) and actually counts on the Democrats having success with their strategy of targeting big states. That is, it encourages the other team to keep doing what they think will win, while ensuring they lose.
Rove’s strategy cedes the big states to the Democrats and gives the Republicans ability to focus on the rest. The cost of running in big states means the Democrats can’t afford to pump money into places like Wisconsin and Missouri.
So, the Republicans run their race and the Democrats theirs and the only time they meet is in a big swing state like Florida and Ohio, where the Republicans had an even money chance of beating the Democrats.
Rove buttressed his strategy by tapping into the Republican grassroots support from church groups to reinforce the ads and to get the vote out locally.
Is this all starting to sound familiar?
It should, because it is exactly the strategy used by Obama.
He is winning in almost every small and mid-size state this primary season. He is using church groups to help get out the word.
And he is ceding the bigger states, except for some later swing states like Ohio, to Clinton.
In other words, Obama is winning the red states, while Clinton is winning the blue states.
Of course Rove’s strategy also relies on stealing one big state.
To date, Obama hasn’t been able to do that, but because of the proportional breakdown of delegates, he hasn’t had to.
He didn’t win California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan or Florida.
He did win Illinois, but that’s his home state, so it’s not the big win he could count on for creating a perception of being a “winner.”
He will still need to win at least one of Texas, Ohio or Pennsylvania, and that’s where King’s coalition re-enters the picture.
For King, that core of support was sustained over a long enough period that he slowly began to change the minds of the rest of America (or at least enough Americans to make the politicians enforce change on an unwilling nation).
For Obama, the timelines are more compressed.
In this case, that compressed timeframe is working to his advantage.
He is eight states through a 10-state sweep of small and midsize primaries.
Those wins are creating this massive surge of momentum, and the media are eating it up.
His self-help slogan, “Yes We Can,” is capturing the hearts of people and convincing them that he is a champion of “Change”.
Changing what and how isn’t clear, but the message is still resonating and it is exciting people who normally don’t pay attention.
And as a result, he could win.
He isn’t half the man King was, although that really isn’t much of a slight, since none of us are.
And he isn’t half the strategist Rove is, because, well, he hasn’t won anything yet.
But he might just have enough of both men in him to actually win the nomination.
Michael Hale is a former journalist and political hack who thinks “Yes We Can” is a silly slogan. Visit his blog at www.north60hale.blogspot.com/