It was 11:13 p.m. on Tuesday, the moment that Fox News had called Ohio for President Barack Obama. Karl Rove stood just off camera, his phone glued to his ear. On the other end was a senior Romney campaign official who insisted that the network had blown the call.
What followed — an extraordinary on-air confrontation between Rove, a Fox commentator, and the network’s team of voting analysts — drew renewed focus on the Republican operative’s complicated and conflicting roles in this presidential campaign.
What role was Karl Rove playing when he heatedly contradicted Fox News?
Was he acting the man who oversaw the most expensive advertising assault on a sitting president in history, unable to face his own wounded pride? The fundraiser who had persuaded wealthy conservatives to give hundreds of millions of dollars and now had a lot of explaining to do? Or the former political strategist for George W. Bush, who saw firsthand how a botched network call could alter the course of a presidential contest?
Rove insists that the ghosts of 2000 prompted him to act.
“I had a concern about premature calls, and in this instance, the concern was shared by my Fox colleague Joe Trippi,” Rove said Wednesday, referring to the Democratic strategist and Fox contributor who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004.
Indeed, in his 2010 memoir “Courage and Consequence,” Rove recounts his dismay as NBC, CNN, CBS and an exit polling firm all called Florida for Al Gore before the polls in the state’s Panhandle had closed.
“The networks calling Florida for Gore,” he wrote, “turned the media from observers to participants in the presidential race.”
But Rove plays a more freighted role than campaign historian. There is no one quite like him in politics today. With a vast treasury at his disposal, he can direct huge sums of money to candidates, while helping shape political perceptions through his roles commenting for Fox News and writing a column for The Wall Street Journal.
And when he talks, people listen.
“He is famous for not being out of the loop,” said Craig Unger, who wrote “Boss Rove,” a biography that examined his rise as a power player in the 2012 presidential campaign. His work on campaigns gives him access to both top Republican strategists and local operatives who know what is happening county by county, Unger noted. “He’s not just another pundit.”
Rove’s deep connections to Republican politics are part of the reason that Fox News put him on the air on Tuesday night to rebut what its own team of analysts had concluded.
“The first thing that came to my mind, the first thing burned in everyone’s mind, is Florida 2000,” said Michael Clemente, the Fox News executive vice president for news. “And the minute you hear, ‘Hold the phone,’ you sort of get that oh-my-goodness feeling.”
So Clemente, who was one floor up in the control room, decided with his team of producers to allow Rove to say on television what he was finding and hearing from the Romney campaign: that the numbers coming out of Ohio were not necessarily adding up to an Obama victory.
Fox News then let its decision team respond, a logistically difficult task considering they were holed up in a room about 30 yards down the hall from the studio.
So at 11:33 p.m., Megyn Kelly, an anchor known for her no-nonsense style, began her walk down the hall and did the questioning.
The leader of the decision team, Arnon Mishkin, laid out its case, with some help from a more polished television presence, Chris Stirewalt.
“Arnon doesn’t do TV very often, and Megyn can be very pointed,” Clemente said. “So I said, Let’s have Arnon with the facts, and Chris — because he’s on TV every day — to put it in English.”
By that point Fox had already declared Obama not just the winner of Ohio, but the winner of the presidency. And when Rove next appeared on camera, his demeanor was more deflated.
Rove has not addressed the episode on Fox News since Tuesday night. He appeared on the network on Wednesday, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” but he was not asked about his mistake.
One Republican closely involved with pro-Romney “super PACs” said Wednesday that Rove should have had every reason to believe the finding of the Fox decision team.
Virtually all Republican strategists who had looked at internal polling by the super PACs, this person said, already knew that the numbers showed a tough race in Ohio for Romney.