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Business, Politics & Society

Campaign Messaging Case Study

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Lesson time 19:38 min

David walks you through the entire media campaign for an Iowa governor’s race to demonstrate how to develop and evolve your campaign 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.
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Every campaign has a plan, but that plan meets all kinds of obstacles, not the least of which is the strategy and the plan and the execution of your opponent. So what I want to do is run through a full campaign for you, a full media campaign to see how the argument evolves, to see the interaction between campaigns, and to see how you win that final judgment as to what the election is all about. In 2002, I worked on the reelection campaign of Tom Vilsack, who was then the governor of Iowa. Four years earlier, I worked for him when he won this improbable victory, the first Democrat in 32 years to get elected governor of Iowa. He made certain commitments in that race to reduce class size and to improve health care for children in the state, and so on, and he fulfilled them. But in the intervening years, a recession set in and the state had to draw down on its reserves. And this became the focal point of the campaign against him. We knew that that was coming. We prepared for it. We did research, and we were ready for the interaction that was going to come. So why don't we take a look at this campaign, and I will talk you through it? These ads were made some years ago, but I think the basic principles of these ads still apply. You want to convey a sense of authenticity, authenticity about the people who are in the spot, authenticity about the information that you're using. You want to make sure it's fully-sourced so that people who approach these things with skepticism have some sense of confidence that you're telling them the truth. - I don't think I can do my job effectively with a large class size. If there's a large class size, all we're doing is crowd control. NARRATOR: As governor, Tom Vilsack fought, even through lean budgets, to reduce class sizes in the early grades so teachers like Jule Schwertley can teach and Iowa's children can learn. The result? For the first time in years, fourth-grade grade scores are up. - There's more individual attention. Each child gets heard. Governor Vilsack has given my children the opportunity to be the best they can be. - The first ads spoke to the payoff from the promise of four years earlier. They also refer to the lean budgets through which he paid off on those promises. They also were delivered through testimonials because I 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. And I never scripted these people. I just asked questions and tried to elicit what their observations and experiences were. And we relied on the campaign to recruit them, but they were very much people who represented the stories they were telling. They weren't actors. I wouldn't use 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...

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.

Good anecdotes and stories. Good to lay campaigning out in chronological order.

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.

excellent content and definitely great presentation. i loved every section and i believe that their advice, however designed for politics, it holds valuable to many more aspects of our life, personal or professional. thanks for the time and energy!

During a time of challenge and change, with the world currently in lockdown, it’s just great to think more broadly, longer term, and for the common good. That applies to me here in the UK but to everyone, everywhere. David and Karl helped with that in the vital areas of public policy and democracy. Thank you


A fellow student

I had not realized how well-planned messages are. This seems to be a real art.

Nick B.

Great lesson, and well-run campaign. Too bad smaller class sizes don't help students much at all... Signed, A former teacher

Thomas L.

I would have loved to hear his thoughts on how to manage this against insurgent candidates, like President Trump's campaign. Neither his Republican challengers nor the Democrats found a really effective way to either convince swing voters to either stay home or not vote Trump. Great case study, and while they've said that politics isn't nastier today that it has been, it was fun watching some ads from 15 years ago that even the negative parts seemed pretty tame by today's standard.


"Doug Gross from Mars? Nah, sounds more like the planet Enron" Heck of a counter punch there, David Axelrod. Credit to whoever came up with that.

Khai Loon L.

Well said. When you attacked, respond, impeach the charge and go back on the offensive with credible and supported by facts.

Pilar C.

Great Lesson!! I loved the ads and the explanation for each ad and how it fit on a timeline.