As the Republican establishment sweats over the increasing likelihood that Donald Trump could become the party’s nominee, one establishmentarian is looking deep into the past for a more promising moment in GOP history. Karl Rove’s latest book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, published by Simon & Schuster last month, chronicles how the 25th president won the White House by standing up to party bosses, reaching out to minorities, and, in the process, revolutionizing the way primary campaigns were waged. On the road in Florida, Rove spoke about the book, why McKinley got Obama elected, and how to beat Trump.
Why did you choose to write about McKinley?
Scholars talk about the five realigning elections in American history, where before politics were one way and after they were something different. And they talk about them by talking about the winners. But with the realigning election of 1896 we’ve talked more about the loser, Williams Jennings Bryan, and the guy who follows him, Theodore Roosevelt.
You write that McKinley ran the first modern primary campaign.
Before him, the general routine was that candidates left their fates in the hands of friends. They tried to have someone organize their home state and contact friends in other nearby states. The candidate would say nothing and do nothing.
So you’re saying the election of 1896 was the first that didn’t take place in smoky back rooms but out in the open?
Right. McKinley makes a decision in 1890 to run and then makes a decision he’s going to be a candidate in 1896. The way he’s going to win is by organizing systematically state by state by state. He used his wide contact of friends to identify people who would support him. The convention of 1896 is the first convention involving a nonincumbent since 1868 that nominates someone on the first ballot. The 1880 convention took 36 ballots.
McKinley also reached out to groups that had not been part of the Republican coalition: Catholics, African-Americans, workers …
This is the one part of the book I knew before the 2000 election, and it made a lot of sense to me. I learned two lessons: Go for the voters who are up for grabs who have not been part of your coalition, and go for the states where you have the opportunity to win that heretofore had not been part of your governing coalition. So we went after West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, which had historically been Democrat states.
Yet the party today has big problems with minorities.
Republicans have faced this before, and they’ve succeeded before. But they’re facing a demographic wave that is very challenging.
I look at that map of 1896, and it looks a lot like the map of 2012 — you just have to switch the parties.
Yeah, well, look, the Democratic Party was the free-trade party, the party of tax cuts and of limited government. And the Republican Party was for protectionism and [African-American] voting rights.
The White House recently renamed Mt. McKinley to Denali. Good move or bad?
You’d think President Obama would have more courtesy to the guy who made it possible for him to be president.
Why do you say that?
McKinley is the president who annexed Hawaii. If Hawaii was still the independent kingdom of Hawaii, Barack Obama being born in Honolulu would not be eligible to be president of the United States.
You write that when McKinley served in Congress, he “did not rush to speak and became known as a man who spoke only when he had something to say.” That sounds a lot like Donald Trump.
I’m going to let that piece of irony go straight by me.
Why is the Republican establishment having so much trouble taking on Trump?
I don’t think the issue is taking on Trump. The issue is consolidating the parts of the party that are becoming increasingly resistant to Trump. What we’ve got are a bunch of people crowding each other saying, “I’m not him,” and what will be interesting to watch is to see how they consolidate or if they do consolidate around someone. My sense is they probably will.
In the past you’ve been vocally critical of candidates that don’t help the Republican brand, whether it’s Todd Akin or Sarah Palin. What are your thoughts on Trump?
To win the nomination and to win the general election you have to be a unifier. If you’re a candidate who has an 11 percent approval rating among Latinos, you’re not succeeding there. If you have a record of misogynist comments, that’s not going to be helpful. If you call all the people you’re running against losers, clowns, and dopes, that’s not the language of someone who unifies the party.
Point me to a successful person who secured the nomination and won the general by adopting that tone.
Is there any historical precedent for a field this big and chaotic?
No. There’s never been anything like this. We have 14 candidates still fighting, and I’m pretty confident there will still be at least 12, 13, or maybe 14 when we start the voting.
The Washington Post and others are reporting that Republican insiders increasingly believe Trump could be the nominee. What do you think?
I think it’s possible. I’ve said so for weeks, months.
Would you support him if he were the Republican nominee?
I’m a Republican.
Would your super-pac, American Crossroads, support him?
No, no, he’s made it clear he doesn’t want any super-pacs active on his behalf.
If you were going to advise the Jeb Bush campaign, what would you say? Are there lessons to be learned from GOP history to help them improve their poll numbers?
Yeah, I don’t derive anything in the book for that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.