The Tribal Election: Barack Obama Turns to the Karl Rove Playbook


Move over, Iraq. Tribal politics have arrived at home.

It’s not like our tribes will arm themselves, but American politics is developing a disturbing resemblance to Mesopotamia’s ever-feuding Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds as the 2012 election rapidly devolves into a power struggle between irreconcilable factions rather than a healthy debate among citizens.

The blame here falls in large part on President Barack Obama, who after four years of economic lethargy needs to recast the election as anything other than what it naturally is: a referendum on the incumbent and the state of the nation.

To turn the page, he has revived the kind of divisive 50 percent–plus–one politics Bush political guru Karl Rove successfully championed in 2004. As former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon has observed, Obama is now following the same playbook used in 2004 against another Massachusetts faux blueblood, Sen. John Kerry. Like Obama, Bush was a polarizing president of meager accomplishments and modest popularity. And like Bush, Obama is hoping to rally his base and demonize his opponent to achieve a fairly comfortable reelection.

To do that, Obama is offering an array of appeals based on tribal totems—gay marriage, contraception, cheap loans for kids, charges of racism by his opponents. Every “grand” statement is aimed at specific groups, either to offer them something or to show how Romney would threaten their interests.

It’s a self-perpetuating dynamic: as he’s aimed his appeal at targeted groups to cobble together a winning coalition, he’s consistently lost ground with middle- and lower-income white Americans. That in turn compels him to double down on his appeals to single women, gays, youth, and minority voters—which in turn further alienates working and retired white voters.

Obama’s gambit creates an election in which turnout and mobilization—a fittingly military concept—of the faithful may be more important than the art of persuasion. It also guarantees a very ugly campaign, filled with even more than its usual share of innuendos, smears, and outright lies aimed at enthusing his base or—particularly for the GOP—discouraging members of unfriendly tribes from showing up to vote.

Obama starts off with natural advantages in the tribal sweepstakes. He’s black, he’s got a “creative class” university pedigree, and he’s hip and cool, not to mention the first post-boomer president. It’s a powerful base for an electoral win.

While Romney‘s core tribe, the Mormons, constitute less than 2 percent of the nation’s population. That’s a lot less than the Alawites who have constituted the core of strongman Bashar al-Assad’s support in Syria. (Of course, part of why Obama needs to cobble together a more complicated coalition is that Romney can also count on winning most white voters, who last favored a Democratic candidate in 1964.)

But Obama and his party have been playing the race card with the aplomb of a Jim Crow Democrat. Assaults on the president or his attorney general, Eric Holder, are immediately blamed on “racism” by groups like the Congressional Black Caucus and “leaders” like the Rev. Al Sharpton—who compared the investigation into the Fast and Furious gun-running case to the stop-and-frisk policies in urban police departments.

This appeal to race makes sense with African-American unemployment at its worst level in more than three decades and enthusiasm for the first black president understandably diminished since 2008. Tribal politics help cover up economic failings, as the old Dixiecrats did by using racism as a screen for the then-backward condition of their region.

More recently, Obama has also directed his tribal charm at Latinos. Hispanic families, according to the census, have done the worst of all groups in the recession, losing 66 percent of their household wealth. Unemployment in the group hovers near 11 percent, and more than 6 million Hispanic children live in poverty—exceeding for the first time the number of black children living in poverty.

Despite those sobering numbers, Obama is favored among Latinos by better than 2 to 1. This is in part because of Mitt Romney’s pivot to a hardline immigration stance during the Republican primary, as well as Obama’s election-year decree effectively giving mass amnesty to a large number of undocumented youth. Obama’s policy conversion is a seminal triumph for Latino politics, marking the group’s ascension into the first rung of American tribes. For many Hispanics, this was seen as an issue of family as well as identity.

Obama has also worked hard to cultivate culture and gender-oriented tribes. The most obvious example of special-interest pandering was his well-timed “evolution” favoring gay marriage. Perhaps more important in terms of votes, the president’s conflict with the Catholic Church over contraception could appeal to single women, who now constitute a critical part of his base. Recent polling shows single women opting for the president by as much as 2 to 1.

Then finally there are the millennials. In 2008, Obama could count on both their votes and their enthusiasm. Now amid hard times—particularly for the “screwed generation”—he has to appeal by offering lower interest rates for student loans and expanded aid to education.

Against these powerful alliance of tribes, what can ultra-white-bread Romney do in response? No doubt he can win the majority of white evangelicals—the largest tribe in the GOP base—but it’s hard to see how they will be much energized for a man whose religion is widely considered a cult among some prominent evangelical preachers. As late as this month, Romney still has to pour time and resources into what has been in recent years a solidly GOP bulwark. At the same time, his other natural “base,” high-income earners in the private sector, is simply not numerous enough to push him even near the electoral requisite.

To counter Obama’s tribal strategy, Romney has to move the discussion away from issues of race, gender, or immigration to the economy and unemployment, which, according to Gallup, remains far and away the dominant issue—with three times more voters calling it their primary concern than those for all social issues combined.

Perhaps the most inviting tribal group for Romney to contest is the “youth vote,” whose members of course shift dramatically every four years as voters age in and out of the cohort. The poor performance of the current economy has already blunted the once widespread youthful enthusiasm for Obama; in 2008 turnout reached 64 percent among young people, the highest in 16 years. This year the portion of 18- to 24-year-olds who say they’ll definitely vote has fallen to 47 percent, according to polls conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

Overall, Democrats’ support among millennial voters has dropped from 66 percent in 2008 to close to 54 percent in 2010. Part of this may be because a vast majority of millennials, like other Americans, rank the economy as by far their greatest concern. Obama is already trailing the GOP candidate among white millennials by more than 20 points.

Due in large part to the heavy minority cohort among millennials, Obama still should win this group in November, but the margin may be somewhat lower and the vote totals much reduced due to rising apathy, something that was notable in the 2010 election. Perhaps more troubling for Democrats, in the critical Scott Walker recall race in Wisconsin, more than 45 percent of voters between 18 and 29 voted for the GOP governor, who had garnered barely 40 percent of their support in his first race against Democrat Tom Barrett two years earlier.

Other tribes could also be targeted, particularly American-born Latinos, who constitute about half the Hispanic adult population. They have been hard-hit by the recession and, according to a recent University of Arkansas study, tend to be somewhat more hardline on border control than their foreign-born counterparts.

And even after his amnesty move, Obama’s support among Hispanics is only 57 percent compared with 67 percent four years ago.

Of course, there are dangers to an ugly tribal win. While Bush significantly moderated his policies in his second term, he received little credit for that shift from the half of the country he’d alienated in 2004 and during his first four years in office.

Another politician who’s recognized the dangers of tribalism? Barack Obama, circa 2007:

"You've got to break out of what I call the 50-plus-1 pattern of presidential politics, which means you have nasty primaries where everyone’s disheartened, then you divide the country 45 percent on one side, 45 percent on the other, 10 percent in middle, all of whom live in Florida and Ohio," Obama told the Concord Monitor.

"Then maybe you eke out a victory of 50 plus one. [But] you can't govern."

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and contributing editor to the City Journal in New York. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast.

Barack Obama photo by

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