Business, Community & Government

Assessing Your Candidate

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Lesson time 13:09 min

Knowing your candidate inside and out is essential to a winning campaign. Both instructors illustrate why you must uncover every strength and weakness: to identify lines of attack and develop your message.

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Topics include: Research Your Candidate to Develop Your Message • Know Your Candidate’s Liabilities • Identify Lines of Attack • Biases That Women and Candidates of Color Face • Elections Reveal Candidates


First thing you have to do to develop a message is gather as much information as you can. Really understand who your candidate is, their biography, their record, what makes them tick, what's important to them, what they've done with their lives. And you need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. it's particularly important, in my view, to know what their struggles have been, because everybody has struggles in their lives. And those struggles define us. Barack Obama lost his mother at 53 to cancer. And she had a horrendous time with her insurance company at the time of her illness. That really motivated him on the issue of health care. So when he talked about health care-- and we did an ad about this-- he very much was thinking about his mother. And in every candidate interaction I have, at the beginning of a campaign, I try and find out, you know, not just about the good things that happen in people's lives, but about the hard things that happen in their lives. If you're working for an incumbent, you need to know the history of their incumbency, their record, if they're a legislator, every vote they've taken, and not just top-line votes. You want to know about that, too. You don't want to find out your vulnerabilities from your opponent's opposition research. So you need to know all of these things. And I would urge you to sit down with your candidate, have a very long conversation, interview them about their lives and careers and their family, about what's important to them, and really get to know them as part of this process. I mean, your ultimate goal is to understand what story you want to tell, not just about the campaign, but your candidate. I think the elements of a strong message are, you know, combined bio, record, and some projective language about where you want to go. And what you want is for it to be authentic, relevant, and connecting. If it's not authentic, people aren't going to accept it. If it's not relevant, they may accept what you're saying, but it's not going to motivate them to vote for you. And it's important to be connecting so that you're speaking to them, that they feel themselves in that message. I guess one last element I would add is most good messages are inferentially contrastive. It projects those qualities that your candidate has that the opponent doesn't have. When Obama talked about change in the way that he talked about change, it was pretty clear, even though he never mentioned any of his opponents, that none of them really fit the bill. And, you know, when Reagan talked about staying the course, maintaining the progress, and so on, it was pretty clear he was the only answer. So you want that to be part of the message as well. But primarily, you want it to be authentic, relevant, and connecting. [RHYTHMIC PIANO MUSIC] It's a delicate balance to deal with candidates, both in terms of the information gathering period, because sometimes they're not completely forthcoming with you a...

About the Instructor

David Axelrod and Karl Rove reach across the aisle to offer an inside look at winning campaign strategies. The respective architects of Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s historic election victories teach how to develop a campaign platform and reach an audience with consistent messaging. Find the inspiration and tools to get involved at any level, or simply become a more informed, engaged citizen.

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David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Renowned presidential campaign strategists David Axelrod and Karl Rove reveal what goes into effective political strategy and messaging.

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