Politics & Society

Political Campaigning 101: 4 Proven Campaign Messaging Strategies from David Axelrod

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 3 min read

Political campaigns are, at their essence, sales pitches. As a campaign strategist, you are selling a product (a.k.a. your candidate) and you are trying to convince your consumers (a.k.a. voters) that this product is better than the competing brands (a.k.a. the other candidates in the race). Just as advertisers take great care to understand their market and speak to them using effective language, so do political strategists when offering up candidates for public office.

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David Axelrod in chair with hands up

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4 Proven Campaign Messaging Strategies From David Axelrod

Having spent more than three decades in the world of politics, David Axelrod understands that a campaign is only as effective as its public messaging. Aligned with the Democratic Party throughout his career, Axelrod has advised many dozens of politicians, most notably the 44th U.S. President Barack Obama.

Below are some messaging strategies Axelrod gleaned over his years of campaigning, told through the lens of his successful 1998 and 2002 campaigns to elect Tom Vilsack as governor of Iowa:

  1. Make sure your messaging is in your candidate’s voice. Not every candidate can deliver a script to the camera in a way that seems organic and authentic. Tom Vilsack, he was a former trial lawyer. He was used to talking to juries, but more than that, he fundamentally believed what he was saying. The thing you want to make sure of is that the candidate's comfortable with that script. And you want to run through it with them. You want to talk about points of emphasis that you want them to make. He took it up very quickly. He did very, very well. He was kind of a natural at it, but it still took some work. And you ought to take the pressure off your candidate by giving them a clear sense of what you think the points of emphasis should be in a script. Oftentimes, you underline different words and so on in the teleprompter so that they don't have to do the work of making those judgments themselves.
  2. Feature real people telling their personal stories. Axelrod found it was far more powerful to hear real people tell their stories, deliver the emotional component of the accomplishment than have a voiceover tell the whole story. He never scripted these people: he just asked questions and tried to elicit what their observations and experiences were. He also never relied on the campaign to recruit them. They weren’t actors, and they felt deeply about what they were sharing. When you’re interviewing people about things that they feel deeply about, especially about things that pain them, intimacy is very important. You want people to see that pain. You want people to experience what they’re feeling.
  3. Only attack your opponent using provable facts, not smears and innuendo. One thing that is more and truer in media, in skeptical if not cynical times, is that if you're going to level any attacks, they had better be credible, and they had better be supported by facts. And people need to see on the screen that they are supported by facts. You need to do that because people are not going to just accept—they understand, at some level, that ads are propaganda, and they're not going to accept what you say without these attestations to the factual nature of what you’re telling them.
  4. Pick a message you believe in, and stick to it. Know what your message is from the beginning. Make sure you don't get knocked off your message. Respond but respond in the context of your message. Make sure that you understand what the power of your opponent's message is, and do everything you can to mitigate your opponent's message. And if you do those things, you're likely going to win.

Learn more about political campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.