Business, Politics & Society

Starting a Campaign

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Lesson time 6:11 min

Karl and David lay out what a campaign team needs to consider at the start of a race. Learn why you need to take stock of the electorate--and your candidate--to develop a theory of why you can win.

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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Key starting point in developing your strategy is to figure out who is going to vote for you, and conversely, who isn't going to vote for you. Most campaigns-- poorly run campaigns-- sort of assume, well, we want to get everybody's vote. Well, there are some people who are never going to vote for you. Look, David, I hate to tell you, he's not going to vote for a Republican. I'm not going to vote for a Democrat. We're likely to vote every election. So it's useless for a Republican to try and get David to switch parties. And it is probably useless for a Democrat to say, "Let me remind you, David, to turn out to vote." Similarly for me. - Think of two circles that overlap. So you have candidate A, candidate B. The vast majority of the circle is the base of both campaigns-- so A and B, voters who are going to vote for A, the voters who are going to vote for B. But in that interlocking space are some voters who are up for grabs, weak voters on one side or the other, up-for-grabs voters who are pure undecideds. And you're going to focus much of your attention on those voters. That's how you make campaigns more efficient. - Yeah. So the question to start out with is, who's going to vote for me, and where are those votes going to come from? Historical data will help you. Going to have to campaign everywhere. Going to have to demonstrate that you're trying to get support from every community. But when you've got limited resources, where are you going to focus those resources to get the people who are up for grabs in the election? - If you're a campaign you have to present a coherent argument so that you control the sort of choice that people have in their heads on Election Day. These are battles of definition. And you're trying to define what the choice is all about. And that's a process that begins at the beginning of the campaign. And if it's a good campaign, you're not going to vary much from that fundamental judgment about what the choice is that you want voters to focus on. Because if they focus on your opponent's view of what the choice is all about, likely, you're not going to win that election. - You know, Curly, the great philosopher in "City Slickers," talked about one thing. And I think David has touched on that one thing. In a campaign, if you had to pick one thing that was critical to its success, it was whether or not the candidate had an idea about why they were running that made sense and seemed relevant to the voters. Because at the end of the day, it's that message expressed in all the ways that we can express a message in a campaign-- from the candidate's remarks to social media to ads to you name it-- that ultimately is what's important to voters. Why are you running? And do you seem to have-- does that seem to be real? And is it important and relevant to me? And then I can judge it against whatever's being offered as the reason of your opponent and make a decision. But that one thing is, why are you running? And a c...

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.

Wow! I loved having them both teach the class. Powerful and made me both nostalgic for campaigns of past and for the future.

It was extremely interesting to hear about campaign strategy from two very experienced practitioners. Thank you to David and Karl!

love these two! Wish they could run my future campaign....together. #bestfbothworlds

Fantastic adventure into the politic's world. Many advice will be useful for me as an engaged citizen, or in my next projects in my business.


Leon K.

Great lesson. Most intriguing was the voter-venn diagram. This is way harder in multiparty states, but makes for a fun and useful analysis I believe.

A fellow student

Having a good message and hammering it home is critical, and also, yeah, unless you're going to do something with power, why are you bothering to go and get it?

Jacob A.

An excellent point, great candidates know why they are running for office. Great leaders work to accomplish something rather than to become something.

A fellow student

I took this course when my professor asked me to write my own nomination letter for a scholarship. I was brought up to never toot my own horn and always be genuinely humble. I took a long hard look at me blank work document and found I couldn't put my hard work or accomplishments to words. Im taking this course to learn to advocate for myself.

A fellow student

It sounds so noble, but it is so broken. We in fact live in a plutocracy where the will of the people has only minimal, if any impact. 90% of the the country support universal background checks, and the US Senate won't even debate it. The political parties have become a duopoly without competion or accountability who primaryly focus on keeping out any other competition. So sad for my grandkids.

A fellow student

I wonder how can we make an inventory of strong and weak points -what are those points? How can we rate them? And then, should the theme behind a campaign play along with that candidate's strong points? I think the video raised a lot more questions than answered them and.. it might not be a bad thing per se... as long as we get to work the details.

Carole C.

I'm curious how, as a politician in any race with primaries, you make the transition from a campaign geared to win voters of your political ideology to the general election when you are trying to persuade voters to jump from their party to yours. As an example, in the current presidential election cycle, there are currently 9 candidates. To win the democratic primary, you're going to have to be a stand out democrat, which will look very different from the candidate who will be able to beat Trump in the general election. How does a candidate make that transition while maintaining his or her narrative? Hopefully, there's more on this issue in later classes!

Geoffrey J.

It's a hugely wonderful surprise to see two people, from opposing parties, collaborate so well to give this course

Ron H.

When I was making a decision to run for office, I asked myself a few questions. First one was why me, why should I do this? Honestly, that was the easiest question for me to answer where I live in the US and it was, "why not?" Our Democracy is supposed to be representative and I felt that I could do the job if I had won. The second question was, "What if I win, what would I want to accomplish?" This was a tougher question to answer and even though I have a strong sense of my values, I wanted to actually get something accomplished. During the seminars, I got to ask an individual who was in elected office, in the minority Party and I asked her, "So you are in the minority, how do you accomplish anything at all?" She told me a story of a bill she had written and took to committee in order to provide help to women who had faced domestic abuse. Her bill died in committee and never made it to the floor. A few weeks later, a new bill was brought to the committee aiming to assist women who were facing domestic abuse. She told me she ran that bill through a word search and found out that the only change to the bill was who happened to be sponsoring the bill. They both served on the same committee and she had a choice to vote to let the bill proceed or not. She voted it to the floor where it passed, knowing that even though she would get zero credit for the bill, it would help these women. That told me, that yes even if I would be elected and in the minority, I could affect change. That was a defining moment for me regarding my run for office.

Journey M.

I believe that whoever your speaking to, wether it be in voting or in anything else, they have to believe it as well and they only believe it when you say it with conviction. Brilliantly said the message that you speak, Does it seem Real.