09/24/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Karl Rove's Long Game

Now that Mitt Romney and the Republicans are on the ropes, more than ever the fate of the 2012 presidential campaign -- and Republican candidates throughout the country -- is in the hands of Karl Rove and the billion dollar political machine he has put together in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

If that's surprising, in part it's because this is the same Karl Rove who barely escaped indictment in the Valerie Plame affair, and whose patron, George W. Bush left the White House with the lowest approval rating in history -- 22 percent. Not to mention the fact that Rove's dream of establishing a permanent Republican majority ended in 2008 with the Democrats' political trifecta, winning the House, the Senate and the White House.

But, as I report in my new book Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power, in 2010, Rove became unofficial party boss of the GOP and king of the Super PACs when he co-founded American Crossroads and its nonprofit sister group, Crossroads GPS, just after Citizens United. During the primary season, he ensured Romney's nomination by regularly aiming barbs at Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other Romney rivals from his perch as an analyst at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Even though he played the part of the enforcer, cracking down on the more rabid insurgent candidates, he managed to bring Tea Party billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers inside the Romney tent for the campaign, and, to a large extent, papered over the schism between Tea Partiers and the Bush-era GOP establishment embodied by Mr. Rove and former RNC chairmen Ed Gillespie and Haley Barbour.

Now, in view of the recent string of self-inflicted calamities that have struck Romney's camp, the Republicans need Rove and his Super PAC lucre more than ever.

But what's a party boss to do when his candidate is in trouble? Desperate times call for desperate measures -- and to understand precisely what that means for the rest of the campaign, it's helpful to remember that Rove played a decisive role in the 2004 presidential campaign, and to look at what happened then.

The father of the voter suppression movement, even before 2004, Rove began promoting a state-by-state campaign to require voter identification to stamp out voter fraud -- a campaign that may bear fruit for the Republicans this year. In the 2004 election, with the help of Mark Hearne, national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, Rove initiated aggressive efforts to require voter photo IDs and implement tougher registration procedures in the battleground states, particularly Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania -- all to prevent sneaking into the polls to cast an illicit vote, dead people voting, illegal aliens voting, and the like. According to his law firm's website, "Hearne traveled to every battleground state and oversaw more than 65 different lawsuits."

The problem, of course, is that voter fraud, as such, is all but nonexistent and the proposed laws are really designed to restrict voting by Latinos, the elderly, college students, the disabled, and the homeless -- all of whom happen to lean Democratic. Accordingly, Democrats have called the GOP campaign Jim Crow 2.0 and Juan Crow.

One does not need to be a math genius to understand the calculus. As the subhead to one of Rove's Wall Street Journal columns explains, "even a small drop in the share of black voters could wipe out [Obama's] winning margin in North Carolina." Similarly, voter suppression efforts in heavily African-American precincts in, say, Cleveland can help swing the vital battleground state of Ohio into the GOP column. And, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation. According to the Center for American Progress, if all the bills were to be enacted (many of them face legislative and judicial battles), more than 10 percent of the electorate, 21 million Americans, lack voter IDs and might face disenfranchisement.

As the Rove-orchestrated Bush-Cheney campaign showed us in Ohio in 2004, many other elaborate techniques that can help shape the electorate to the liking of the Republicans. In 2004, pre-election 'caging' tactics designed to cast doubt on the addresses of registered voters, targeted African-Americans so their registrations could be challenged on Election Day. Flyers and phone calls provided Democrats with misleading information about when and where to vote. Uneven distribution of voting machines ensured that voters in heavily Republican precincts could zip through voting lines while those living in Democratic neighborhoods had to wait up to eleven hours. The use of provisional ballots given to voters whose eligibility is in doubt was restricted, again disenfranchising tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Democrats.

Similarly, as I recount in Boss Rove, there was widespread evidence of "cross-voting," an elaborate set of techniques by which punch card ballots can be awarded to the wrong candidate. There was also plenty of evidence mention malfeasance via electronic voting.

This time around, Rove has far more money to play with than he did in 2004. Already, his Super PACs are inundating battleground states with political ads. As Romney has faltered, a considerable amount of funds have shifted to key Senate races in Ohio, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. But Rove's Super PACs cannot abandon Romney completely without endangering GOP down ballot candidates all over the country.

And in the end, Rove is neither omnipotent nor infallible. He cannot completely compensate for Romney's inadequacies or any gaffes he might make in the upcoming presidential debates. Indeed, the narrative of Romney as a multi-millionaire who doesn't care one whit about half the country may well be so deeply entrenched that even a billion dollar ad campaign can't overcome it.

In that case, it's worth remembering that Rove has an even higher concern than winning the White House. Having long dreamed of replicating the achievement of Mark Hanna, the legendary political operator who put William McKinley in the White House and launched an era of Republican dominance, ultimately, he cares most about Karl Christian Rove and his fate as the permanent GOP party boss.

"He's playing a very long game," Republican operative Roger Stone told me. "He's playing for control of the party. That's where the power is. That's where the money is. Even if Romney loses, that's good for Karl, because he will still be in control."

Craig Unger is the author of 'Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power' (Scribner, September 2012). He is also a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, and wrote the New York Times bestseller, 'House of Bush, House of Saud.' For more about Boss Rove, and to buy the book, go to