Business, Politics & Society

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.

David Axelrod and Karl Rove
Teach Campaign Strategy and Messaging
Renowned presidential campaign strategists David Axelrod and Karl Rove reveal what goes into effective political strategy and messaging.
Get All-Access


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...

What it takes to win elections

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.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Amazing please please make a second Master Class

As both a practitioner and professor this class was enlightening to me working with clients, potential clients, and students who will some day take my place in the field. It was fair and much deeper than I expected the experts to go.

Inspiring and useful for me. Thanks to both instructors for showing me the journey of the election campaign.

I learned a lot about the inner workings of a campaign. It was very interesting!


Josh F.

"If you try and fake it, you're gonna get caught." - David Axelrod Arguably, Trump invalidated this adage. His record was available, his indiscretions on full display. Often by his own hand did he publicly hang himself with his words and actions. Yet somehow, he escaped the noose. Then, from this perspective, how did Donald Trump pass this hurdle? Was it that voters had enough of what they saw as 'business as usual', blaming 'Washington Elite' for their problems not being addressed? Or on the other end, that voters did not see passed the bravado, to his actual record? And did his campaign pull off a Hail Mary, using his bluster and celebrity to make people feel like this billionaire really understood them? This is such a fascinating course simply because of the history of these two men.

Allison F.

Pretty amazing. Tons of insight. As a former operative, (low level) I see why this would not have been the path for me. But this gives me understanding of how I can continue being a savvy voter and advocate.

A fellow student

It is interesting that, despite what has been said, sometimes the so called "MRI" to the soul can show fake news instead - or, even though they reflect the truth, it can be interpreted as fake news - or biased media. The complexity of news exposure - and how voters are influenced - makes the history of a candidate more or less important than, for instance, the strategy to counter attack or to attack?

William M.

When they mention central points examples would bring it to life. What was "Obama's Definition?" Bush's? Lincoln's?

A fellow student

Recently it seems that if a candidate has a personal problem he often accuses his opponent of having the problem so that he can cover up his own failure. I feel that intential bias such as gender, race and etc. should be discouraged.

Ron H.

Another near Universal Truth that I learned from previous seminars was that you can always tell a politician's weakness if they campaign on it as a strength. One other thing I would like to add is that I heard time and time again from people who wanted to run, but felt that things in their past would hurt them, or their families. This is why candidates always get their immediate families involved in making a decision to run for office or not, but I lament the fact that a ton of good and very qualified people don't run. So this lesson is really, really important because not a single soul who ever ran for office didn't have something in their past that could potentially harm them. I do feel that you have to be very, very strategic in how you may handle that. In this class there were two great examples of this! Axelrod's candidate who had an issue with mental health in his past, and he was prepared to respond if needed. Here, that campaign deemed that it would be too harmful to the candidate to "get out in front" on that potential objection to voters and thus held that information close. Rove's example of Bush not getting out in front of his DUI prior to the election cost him half a million votes. People have short memories and are much more forgiving on some issues, and as society changes this may get easier. No one fearing their past should preclude a run for office, unless of course you're an axe murderer.

Chris H.

Fascinating dive into campaigns and candidates! "Running for President is like an MRI for the soul." I think all candidates should heed these words!

Richard C.

This is a very important course, and I hope that everyone who runs a presidential campaign in 2020 watches all of these lessons. Kudos to Masterclass for putting these two frenemies together for a brilliant discussion of what works and why it works.

Althea B.

Great lesson, especially about how women may have turned the tide, element of change.

Mia S.

R: It's a quirky thing, I think. The toughest races in America to run are the races for presidency and for the local, the most local of offices. Because they both have the same characteristics, which is: People know who you are. A: They live with you 24/7, all the time. People know their mayors intimately. They know the president intimately. The offices in-between, not so much. But that makes those - I've always thought those are the two most vibrant kinds of elections, elections for local office and elections for the presidency. R: I was just with the mayor of Luling, Texas, which is the Watermelon Capital of the World, they have the watermelon thump; and I get introduced to the guy, his wife said: 'He has been mayor for 19 years.' I said, 'They know your phone number.' And both of them broke out laughing and said, 'Of course they do.' Because if you got a pothole, if the trash isn't being picked up, they know where to go. A: Candidates who are successful really do pay attention to what voters care about, about issues in their community or in the venue in which they're running, and how they touch people's lives. It is an essential element of a winning campaign that it speaks to the experience of people - and that too is something that folks need to understand. R: This political campaign is not about fooling the people, it's about revealing a candidate with strengths and weaknesses on their best day. If you approach it from that way, if you understand that good candidates approach it from that way, I think it results in better decisions for the voters and better candidates who offer themselves to the voters. A: You have some presidential races that are like MRIs for the soul; whoever you are, it's going to be revealed. If you try and fake it, you're going to get caught. It is one of the virtues of presidential elections that they are like long, very rigorous oral exams: every aspect of who you are is probed, and at the end of it, people do know who you are - it is an MRI for the soul, and then they make critical judgments about who best will serve their interests or the interests of the country.