The Abe Lincoln Four-Step

This article was originally published by National Review on November 19, 2012. It is added here with the author's permission.

The immediate cause of the reelection of President Barack Obama is that the Obama campaign and its allies conducted a ground game much superior to that of the Mitt Romney campaign and its allies. The Democrats’ greater number of effective, on-the-ground activists and leaders made the difference.

A great many conservative organizations did mobilize large numbers of grassroots members and donors. In some cases with considerable resources, these conservative organizations worked hard to activate in the election the bases they had built.

Often the cumulative impact of politically effective conservative organizations can swing elections to conservative candidates. But not always, of course.

Back in the 1960s, I learned from Raymond V. Humphreys, the longtime director of political training at the Republican National Committee, something called the “Abe Lincoln Four-Step.” It was Abraham Lincoln’s description, years before there was a Republican party, of the systematic way to win an election.

Here is the Abe Lincoln Four-Step:

1. Obtain a complete list of all the voters.

2. Ascertain with certainty for whom each will vote.

3. Have the undecided spoken to by those in whom they have the most confidence.

4. On Election Day, make sure every Whig gets to the polls.

Advances in technology since the mid-19th century have changed how these four steps can be accomplished. And changes in election law now enable many people to vote before Election Day. But accomplishing those four steps is still the best way to maximize one’s chance of winning an election. That is why I have made sure that my educational foundation, the Leadership Institute, always includes the Abe Lincoln Four-Step in our political training programs.

Please note that the Abe Lincoln Four-Step is a systematic, universal plan. It includes the entire electorate. In practice, such a comprehensive approach can be carried out only by a political party or, sometimes, by a very well-funded candidate — and even then, never 100 percent completely.

In the United States, to be sure, political activity is not limited to political parties and political candidates. That is a good thing. Everyone has the right to associate with others in political activity independent of party organizations or candidates’ committees. Many do.

Exercising their rights, Americans support tens of thousands of at least nominally non-partisan groups that are active in politics, from organized labor to the National Right to Work Committee, from to a local tea-party group.

Each such group can have its political impact. Some have a big impact. At the margin, some groups, alone or in concert with allied groups, can make the difference between victory and defeat. But none of them can fully implement the Abe Lincoln Four-Step. Only a well-organized political party or a well-organized candidate’s committee can come even close to doing that.

A political party is an empty vessel, which has meaning only through the principles and actions of those who choose to use it for their own purposes. Without working through a political party, conservatives will never implement our principles in the policy-making process.

At the same time, without a large coalition of at least nominally non-partisan, cooperating conservative groups, the Republican party would win few elections. So it is downright stupid, on the one hand, for party officials to resent the political participation of independent conservative groups and, on the other, for conservative leaders to refuse to cooperate with party committees on behalf of candidates whom those conservative leaders want to win.

By law, anyone can take part in a political party. No one can be turned away from participating in the nominating procedure of the party of his or her choice. If more conservatives exercised their rights to participate inside the Republican party, there would be many fewer content-free party leaders.

Starting on Election Day itself, I have received uncounted e-mails and phone calls reporting the disastrous failure of the Romney campaign’s project called “Orca,” a massive and expensive program to get out the vote. Most Americans had never heard of Orca, but horror stories about it are circulating in some news media and online, including NRO.

Orca, the closest Republican approximation to the Abe Lincoln Four-Step in 2012, was put in place by the Romney campaign, not by the Republican National Committee or state parties. No doubt analysts will discuss the collapse of Romney’s Election Day organization for many years. Don’t expect officials of the Romney campaign to document the extent of this devastating problem. Perhaps the Republican National Committee will.

But many other explanations for Romney’s defeat are being given. One of my favorites was told to me two days after the election by a distinguished Leadership Institute donor. He said: “Back in 1948, when I was a young man, my grandfather told me that Tom Dewey would lose the election to Harry Truman, even though the polls all predicted a Dewey victory. ‘Dewey doesn’t relate to the common man,’ my grandfather said. ‘If I had charge of him, I’d shave off that moustache, roll him around in the dirt for a while, and then send him out to campaign.’” There may be some validity to that donor’s analogy.

A somewhat different problem is that Mitt Romney ran a campaign in which he passed up many opportunities to duke it out with President Obama. Romney focused on appearing “presidential,” as many people said and wrote during the final weeks of the campaign.

On the other hand, in his advertising and in his speeches, Barack Obama was constantly on the offensive. After all, what would one expect from a disciple of Saul Alinsky? Hate targeting? Character assassination? Fanning envy and class warfare? Raging against political “enemies”? Inciting “revenge”? Promising something for nothing? Yep! These themes are familiar to anyone who has observed “progressives” — read: leftist ideologues — in action.

Romney kept his general-election campaign above the fray and never thundered about many issues on which there was or could have been sharp disagreement — such as federal spending, the national debt, social issues, Obamacare, and the Benghazi scandal.

Romney deliberately chose to appear distinguished and “presidential,” which in this context meant not passionate.

Perhaps the common man is looking for more passion in a presidential nominee. You will remember that Ronald Reagan showed firm and unyielding passion for his principles and managed to say unpleasant things pleasantly.

The final popular-vote totals are not yet in, but it is clear that Mitt Romney received fewer votes in 2012 than John McCain did in 2008.

Among those millions who supported Romney, he generated a lot of enthusiasm. This led many, perhaps most, of his supporters to think he was going to win. But no one should deny that millions of conservative Americans simply did not vote, many more than Barack Obama’s margin of victory.

One must wonder how many of those people would have come out to vote for a 2012 Republican nominee who was willing to lead moral outrage against President Obama and the entire leftist agenda.

— Morton Blackwell is president of the Leadership Institute and the Republican national committeeman of Virginia.