2016 presidential election in focus at Rice’s Baker Institute

Two of America’s premier political consultants, David Axelrod and Karl Rove, gathered leading political experts – from campaigns, the media and academia – at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy March 28 for the inaugural conference of the institute’s Presidential Elections Program.

Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, left, speaks during a conversation with CBS News’ Major Garrett, center, and Republican political consultant Karl Rove. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The all-day conference focused on the roles social media and changing demographics played in the 2016 election. It was also part of a 25th-anniversary commemorative series featuring the centers and research of the Baker Institute.

James A. Baker III, honorary chair of the institute, former U.S. secretary of state and White House chief of staff to both presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, welcomed the attendees to a luncheon discussion with Axelrod and Rove. CBS News’ Major Garrett, the network’s chief White House correspondent, served as moderator.

“Having been involved in five presidential elections, I often get the question, ‘Who’s going to be the next president of the United States?’” Baker told the capacity audience gathered in the institute’s Doré Commons. “American presidential politics, it seems, is a focus for people all around the world and rightly so, given the huge role that the United States plays in the international arena. With the support of many of you in this room today, we’ve started this program that will look at many aspects of presidential elections, from campaign strategies and the money needed to make them work to the ways in which we conduct our primary and general elections.”

In advance of his remarks, Baker was interviewed live by NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell in the institute’s Rush Conference Center for her MSNBC show, “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” Baker and Mitchell, who also moderated a panel at the conference, discussed North Korea, China, Russia and recent developments at the White House.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Axelrod and Rove, who served as honorary directors of the conference, spoke with candor and wit about the winning and losing strategies and tactics of the 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell interviews former Secretary of State James A. Baker III in a live broadcast from the Baker Institute. Photo courtesy of MSNBC

“We live in a time of perpetual jaundice about institutions and the status quo,” said Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for Barack Obama’s two winning presidential campaigns. “Being the outsider is advantageous and was advantageous. Hillary Clinton had been on the national scene for a quarter of a century and was in every way an avatar of the status quo in an election in which change was very important. The biggest, the most-often-cited item on a list of items as to why people voted the way they did in exit polls was they wanted a candidate who would bring change to Washington. Donald Trump carried that group. The insurgency was part of the message, was part of what drove it, and there was a ready audience for it.”

Rove, who is credited with the 1994 and 1998 Texas gubernatorial victories of George W. Bush, as well as Bush’s successful 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, said he sees Trump’s insurgency candidacy and electoral win as a “normal, periodic expression” of the country’s political system and pointed to historical precedent. He said the weakening of the party structure is actually more profound than outside insurgencies. “It’s more the fact that now the parties are controlled by primaries,” he said.

Rove said Trump’s use of social media and skill in tapping into discontent among parts of the electorate during the campaign was significant. “The nature of the candidate in using the social media, he was uniquely organized,” Rove said. “His brain was wired to make use of Twitter in a way that others were not. The other part of the equation is that we look at the candidate and their use of that tool, but you also need to look at the nature of the voters who respond to that tool. One of the reasons why there was such a high degree of engagement with his tweets was that the people that who were out there waiting and available to him said, ‘I hate the way that the country is going.’”

In addition to social media, Trump also made effective use of television, Axelrod said. “His great inspiration wasn’t so much about technology,” he said. “His great inspiration is, ‘How do you dominate television?’ His great inspiration is that if you light yourself on fire, they have to cover you. He has an asbestos suit on at all times, fire-retardant suit. (He) understands that the media is going to follow him. Twitter to him is just a tool to drive media, to drive coverage. I am loathe to say that the antidote to that is to have a candidate who is equally willing to set themselves on fire.”

Other speakers and panelists included Timothy Alberta of Politico, Jonathan Martin of the New York Times, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune.

A first-of-its-kind program

The conference was held in Baker Hall’s Doré Commons

In 2017, the Baker Institute established the Presidential Elections Program, the first of its kind in the country, to foster a greater understanding of U.S. presidential campaigns through objective, fact-based research and analysis. In his welcoming remarks for the conference, Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian noted that “regardless of one’s political affiliation, we can all agree that elections and politics seem to be changing in ways not yet fully understood.” Djerejian added that the program is “a prime example of our institute’s continuing evolution to address our nation’s major policy problems.”

As part of the program, the two honorary directors select a topic for research that could include a variety of subjects ranging from the effects of money on presidential campaigns to the role of the media in the electoral process.

The Presidential Elections Program will release a policy report that summarizes the event’s major discussions and debates. The program will host two conferences within every four-year period.

At the conference, Baker announced the program will be endowed with more than $2.5 million. He recognized the generous support of Houston philanthropists Hushang and Shahla Ansary in helping the institute reach its fundraising goals for the program.

The program is overseen by John Williams, a fellow at the Baker Institute and policy assistant to Baker, and Mark Jones, the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, professor of political science and fellow in political science at the Baker Institute.

To view an archived webcast of the conference and its panels, go to www.bakerinstitute.org/events/1925.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.