From David Axelrod and Karl Rove's MasterClass

The Campaign Message

Using effective ads from past successful campaigns, David and Karl teach you the different types of messages you can create for your campaign, from biographical content to positive, comparative, and negative ads.

Topics include: Types of Messages • Establish Your Message With a Framing Spot • Negative Ads Aren’t New •Attack Wisely

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Using effective ads from past successful campaigns, David and Karl teach you the different types of messages you can create for your campaign, from biographical content to positive, comparative, and negative ads.

Topics include: Types of Messages • Establish Your Message With a Framing Spot • Negative Ads Aren’t New •Attack Wisely

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Teach Campaign Strategy and Messaging

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There are several kinds of messages that you could use in your communications effort. There can be introductory or biographical that basically explain who you are and why you're running. There's positive advertising, advertising that says, here's what I want to achieve. Here's who I am. Here's what I want to do. There's comparative advertising. I stand for this. They stand for that. And then there's of course attack advertising, negative advertising, when you go after the record or the persona or the public statements of your opponent. Every campaign is a mix of these different messages. No campaign can be won by simply introducing the candidate or sharing their views. There's got to be at least some point at which you compare yourself with your opponent. But this is where campaigns get really in difficulty, because they do, in my opinion, too little of the definitional advertising, both biographical and explanation of what it is that they want to do. And when they start to do the comparative or the negative, they go over the line. This is really dangerous territory. For a comparison to be effective, it has to be considered to be important, relevant, and true. And if it doesn't hit those, it either fails as a message, or worse, provides an opportunity for a counterpunch. - I think what's important to impart to people, though, is these ads are not-- they don't exist in the abstract. They exist as part of a larger argument. And you want to think of your campaign as an argument. So what are the elements of that argument? What is it that people need to know? Often, bio ads are authenticators for people. I had a client whose father sold everything he owned to send his kid to college. And the kid found out later about it. When he did an education ad and imparted that, it was really impactful, because it had an emotional bight to it. So the bio ads are important. If you're running for a low level office, state rep or school board or city council, you're not going to have those kind of resources. And even within that context, some campaigns are going to be better funded than others. You have to decide what it is, what contrasts you want to draw. And you can create events, or stunts that might get attention for your campaign. You could hold a press conference outside of your opponent's campaign headquarters. You can also wait for breaking news events. I had a client years ago who was running for mayor of Cleveland. And he was one of the less resourced candidates. He literally drove around in a car listening to news radio. And when a story broke on one of the issues that he was campaigning on, whether it was crime or education or something, he would go and he would hold a press conference there. And he would call the press and say, I'm going to speak just to break into the news cycle. Now, with social media, you can create a viral moment just by creating some video with your cell phone. And if 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.

Reviews

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

I feel like I can look at our current political discourse and campaign culture and understand so much more. Karl and David are fantastic, I went into this class respecting their careers but now I admire them profoundly.

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

Almost perfect! The ONLY thing I wished for more of was information on the electoral process and how to impact that process as a voter.

It has cleaned my lens of campaigns and made the activities practical.

Comments

Michael O.

You reap what you sow with negative campaign ads, you bums. To say nothing of the toxicity that has trumped legislative bi-partisanship in DC for decades. You both have poisoned the national well, and no amount of justification can exonerate it. Shame.

Ron H.

Universal Maxim: Every candidate that says that something is his strength is the exact opposite. This will serve you well as a voter, but it can also serve you well as a candidate. One gentleman in a race I was in happened to be saying that he was heavily supportive and invested in preserving the mission of the nearby air base. A little research showed that as the Mayor of the City just south of the base, he had approved a very large housing development in the bases APZ (accident potential zone) where over the years numerous jets had crashed. By doing this, he had jeopardized the mission of the base. When it was pointed out that he was putting the base at risk, the City revoked the approved development, after the contractor had already invested over a million dollars cutting in streets. The City then had to compensate that builder those damages, money that came from the taxpayers.

Mia S.

A: Our campaign in 2012 with Mitt Romney was contentious - we were in the midst of this, just recovering from this economic crisis. A lot of angst about the economy. That was the essence of Romney's attack, and we knew it would be. So we needed to understand how to deal with that attack, and the inspiration that flowed from research was that people were viewing the economy not as some macroeconomic set of statistics, but how they felt as a middle class person, and their ability to survive and prosper in the economy. We did a series of ads that raised issues about Romney's business practices. Those advanced our argument, because our argument was, Obama was fighting for the middle class. So you don't want to just pick the most out-of-a-hat negative argument, or even necessarily an argument that polls well, if it doesn't advance your argument. And if you do use an argument that polls well, you need to figure out how it furthers your argument. R: What you did with the Romney ad was to take what he thought was his strength (A: And mitigate it) and make people realize it was a weakness. We did this in 2004, John Kerry was running as, 'I'm the war veteran, I served in Vietnam, I know the military, we're in a time of national threat, I'm the strong leader you need.' And we had found him voting first for a measure to fund the troops in combat and then voting against it. Voting for it on a procedural measure, and then voting against it. So we ran an ad in which we went literally in one town - Huntington, West Virginia; we found out he was going to go there - so we ran an ad, bought it the night before, we knew he was going to spend the night there, ran it heavy the night before on all those local stations, ran it the morning of his appearance in front of a group of veterans, and we attacked him. 'He said, when our troops were under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, he voted against funding the troops, he voted against' - and we listed all the things that were in this war measure. And this caused him to go out and give that famous, 'I was for it before I was against it,' and it just sort of showed that he was a flip-flopper. A: Whatever people said about George Bush, there was this sense that he was a guy who was fighting for - on the war, that he was strong, that he believed what he believed, even if you didn't believe it. And so the contrast is what worked. R: We had the sense that if somebody comes up with a clever ad, that somehow they're able to mislead the voters - but in reality, the campaign is really more like that old childhood story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' At the end of that parade, we saw the emperor buck-naked, exactly as he was. Well, at the end of a good campaign - particularly a campaign for the presidency - we don't see the two candidates as each of them, one of them is all good, one of them is all bad; we see them as a mixture of good and bad. The American people try to make a conscious decision as to who they think is best for that moment.

Mia S.

A: There is this sense that politics is more negative today than it's ever been before. That's plainly not the case - you go back and look at the campaigns in the 19th century, they were brutal - they just weren't on television. In the race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century, the Adamsites distributed a pamphlet called 'The Juvenile Indiscretions of General Andrew Jackson from Ages 23-60.' So negative media's been with us from the beginning, it's just taken different forms. My advice to campaigns is to think of it this way: Nobody walks into a voting booth and says, 'I love both these people, who do I love the most?' They make comparative judgments as to who best represents their concerns, who best fits the choice that they think is being decided that day - and you want to make sure they get to the right spot, and what you can't do is allow your opponent to craft your image or their own image to their advantage. The first really impactful negative ad that I have seen - and I'm not sure I've seen one better since - was in 1960, when John Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon, and Nixon was running on experience, Kennedy was in the change role in that campaign. But experience was a powerful argument for Nixon. And Kennedy seized on a moment - a press conference with President Eisenhower - in which he was asked about Nixon's experience. He turned it into a devastating negative spot. R: People seem to think that in politics, attacking is strong. Well most times in politics, the counterpunch is stronger than the punch itself. So if you go over the line with an attack, sometimes you open yourself up to a counterpunch that is more powerful than the original attack. A: Negative media is like radiation therapy - if you use it properly, it can help you. If you use it improperly - if it's gratuitous, unfounded - it can really boomerang on you. I've been involved in several campaigns - many campaigns, in my life- where you got the other hand because the other side went overboard.

Mia S.

A: You can create events, or stunts, that might get attention for your campaign - you can hold a press conference outside of your opponent's campaign headquarters. You can also wait for breaking news events. I had a client years ago who was running for mayor of Cleveland, and he was one of the less-resourced candidates, he literally drove around in a car listening to news radio, and when a story broke on one of the issues he was campaigning on, whether it was crime or education or something, he would go and he would hold a press conference there, and he would call the press and say, 'I'm going to speak, just to break into the news cycle.' Now with social media you can create a viral moment just by creating some video with your cell phone and if you strike the right themes, that can energize an electorate that received the message. In a great campaign, there's usually one big framing spot that tells you exactly what that message is - where you have a very clear sense of what the campaign is about. One of the most famous of all time is the 'Morning in America' spot that Ronald Reagan did. The Reagan spot was a classic incumbent re-election spot, in a time when people were satisfied with the direction of the country, happy with his performance. He had become president at a time of great economic turmoil, there was progress; this spot put that progress in context and asked the fundamental question: Do we want to go back? And remember, Reagan was running against the vice president who had served in the previous administration, Walter Mondale. So they were framing it clearly as a choice between the past and the future, between policies that were seen a failure, to policies that were seen as a success. There were certainly many Democrats at the time who disparaged Reagan's message, the 'Morning in America' message, the 'let's not go back' message. But here's the important thing to remember: In a campaign, you're not getting 100% of the vote. You're going for a very specific segment of the vote; Reagan's people knew where the votes were, and this spot - which spoke to a small town and rural America as much as anybody - really resonated with his target. We did one in the Obama campaign called 'Our Moment,' and it was cut from a very important and successful speech that Obama made in Iowa at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, where he really framed his campaign in the terms that we were all working toward. The interesting thing about these spots is that they both spoke to where voters were in that moment. Obama was a candidate of change; if voters were looking for continuity, Obama surely wouldn't have been the answer. A guy who was four years out of the Illinois State Senate, who had spent very little time in Washington, running against a bunch of Washington insiders with lots of experience. But voters did want change. There was great discontent with Washington, and he represented a clean break. And that's what this spot said. 'If you want change, this is your choice.'

Mia S.

R: There are several kinds of messages that you could use in your communications effort: There can be introductory or biographical, that basically explain who you are and why you're running; there's positive advertising that says, 'Here's what I want to achieve, here's who I am, here's what I want to do.' There's comparative advertising, 'I stand for this, they stand for that'; and then there's of course attack advertising, negative advertising, when you go after the record, persona, or the public statements of your opponent. Every campaign is a mix of these different messages - no campaign can be won by simply introducing the candidate or sharing their views, there's got to be at least some point at which you compare yourself with your opponent. But this is where campaigns get really in difficulty, because they do in my opinion too little of the definitional advertising - both biographical and explanation of what it is that they want to do; and when they start to do the comparative or the negative, they go over the line. This is really dangerous territory. For a comparison to be effective it has to be considered to be important, relevant, and true. And if it doesn't hit those, it either fails as a message, or worse, provides an opportunity for a counterpunch. A: I think what 's important in part to people though is, these ads are not - they don't exist in the abstract. They exist as part of a larger argument. And you want to think of your campaign as an argument. So what are the elements of that argument, what is it that people need to know? Often, bio ads are authenticators for people - I had a client whose father sold everything he owned to send his kid to college and the kid found out later about it. When he did an education ad and imparted that,it was really impactful because it had an emotional bite to it. So the bio ads are important. If you're running for a low-level office, state rep or school board or city council, you're not going to have those kind of resources - and even within that context, some campaigns are going to be better funded than others, so you have to decide what it is, what contrasts you want to draw.

Nick B.

So, this lesson begs the question: How do you craft an effective ad from start to finish? Rove and Axelrod talk a lot about what's in an effective ad. I wish they gave more of a "how to" guide on this one.

Sue B.

I think it is important to speak to your base but more important to identify the needs and wants of the undecided voters. A broad generic appeal at times to establish your platform, but a targeted zinger with specifics that differentiate you from your opponent. Something that will resonate with the available voters that might be swayed your way and impactful enough that it carries through to the voting booth.

Rich L.

And let’s examine the messaging from the 2016 Presidential election. Candidate Trump honed in on the specific issues that he (correctly) believed his voters were passionate about; it was topical, much like the “Morning in America” and “Hope and Change” messaging. Candidate Clinton offered a gobbledygook message of feel-good, but meaningless and abstract, concepts that resonated mostly in heavily populated big cities, as well as the heavily populated NW and NE states—hence why she won the popular vote but still lost by a wide Electoral College margin. For all her supposed political savvy, candidate Clinton sure didn’t grasp very well the importance of swing voters in swing states. Clinton’s messaging was neither continuous of President Obama’s nor perceived to be genuine.

Lathifa

I got an aha moment when David Axelrod said that bad/negative campaign has been around since whenever campaign started, it's not something new. It's just the medium that is different.