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Working on a Campaign

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Lesson time 12:30 min

Both instructors teach you how to decide which candidate to work for, the different roles on a campaign team, and the role of key decision-maker.

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.


If you're a younger person, and you're talking to candidates or watching candidates, there's no science to determining who you want to go to work for. And sometimes, it can become an easy choice, if you find yourself drawn to one party or the other, and a candidate is nominated. That alone may be an impetus to work for that candidate. But the only advice that I would give you is follow your instinct. What I learned in my years in politics is that your first instinct is probably the right instinct. If something strikes you as wrong, then you shouldn't do it. In 2004, I got a call telling me that John Edwards, who was thinking of running for president-- or was running for president-- had lost his media consultant and wanted to talk to me. I flew to Washington. Some of my friends, who, like I, had done presidentials before said, you know, don't sign up immediately. Spend time with him. Really understand who he is. It was really good advice, but I didn't follow it. I went and I had a two-hour meeting. I came back. I told my very wise wife, Susan, about the meeting, and she listened to it. And I won't go into the details of it. And she said, I don't think you should do the race. Something is amiss here. Something's not right. And it turned out to be-- John Edwards treated me fine. But it turned out to be not a good experience for me. I decided then that I was never going to do a presidential race again, unless it was with a candidate with whom I had an absolute bond of trust, because you can't go through an experience like that at a high level, unless there's a real bond of trust, because your bond is being tested all the time in a presidential race. You're going to have bad experiences, off-days, bad decisions. And you have to have a relationship with a candidate that goes deeper, so that the candidate says, you know, let's just fix this and move on. And so you never have to worry about your status. So I think it's really important to follow your instincts and not try and talk yourself into doing a race. If you want to get involved in campaigns, I would urge you to get involved in any capacity you can and really survey the different aspects of a campaign. There's the communications function, which, increasingly, is going to involve a major social media component. That's a really interesting place to be. It's obviously one that interests me, coming out of the news media and doing what I do. There is the field in voter contact aspect of campaigns-- how do you organize that volunteer corps in such a way that you're touching the voters you need to touch, getting the information you need to get them, and making sure that they vote? Interesting part of the campaign. There's the fundraising part of the campaign, without which none of the rest of it works. And how do you raise the money in small denominations? But also, how do you raise money in larger denominations? That's a specialty. Advance in setting up the candid...

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.

Awesome. I love both of these guys. I learned so much.

I'd like to watch it again and better absorb the information

That was a great display of civil disagreement, and collegial cooperation.

It was awesome . i loved it from the beginning till the end


Eduardo P.

Last year I joined a local campaign in Colombia and I loved the experience. I recommend that you choose a candidate based on two key factors that Mr. Axelrod and Mr. Rove outlined finely: Have common cause and follow your instinct that he /she is trustworthy.


We don't need people with certain skin colours or women we need people with integrity and they come in any race, colour or gender

A fellow student

I really liked that, in the final part of the video, they kind of agreed to disagree - while Mr. Rove said that it is important to have this strict hierarchy, someone calling the shots, Mr. Axelrod said that in Obama's campaign it was essential to have people who could play together - something more akin to group work in ocean's eleven without really just one person calling the shots but more like several of them working and calling the shots in their specific domain. I wonder what happened in John Edwards campaign that made Mr. Axelrod regret working for him....

warren W.

Swamp creatures have to be good at what they do to maintain the perception that they have value. I yearn to have those skills to use for good.

A fellow student

The lesson is useful in viewing candidates as they progress toward office. Insights into motivation, tactics, etc. will be intriguing as I apply them to current races.

A fellow student

Informative. Have experienced both sides of the discussion as an adviser and candidate. Found the discussion to be on point with items of value to potential candidates.

Vickie R.

What a great class! Never had a class that gave you advice on how to work for and do PR for a candidate? I was a Republican, then became a Democrat and now I'm an Independent. I could easily help out with public relations. I used to deal with a lot of Hollywood celebs here in Los Angeles. I wouldn't mind door-knocking and spreading THE WORD! What an original class. But do you have to live in WDC in order to work for a candidate or can I work from my home here in Los Angeles? I love doing public relations and am great at meeting and greeting famous folk. I was did some promotion for the late Sonny Bono and met Newt Gingrich at a movie festival in Palm Springs. Lots of fun. I could consult the candidate on how to court the celebs!

A fellow student

The ability and hierarchy of the decision makers appears key to the candidate's success.

Mia S.

A: "When Obama decided to run for president, we didn't have an organization. And it was a little like 'Ocean's 11' - we could go out and we could get the people we wanted, all of whom had great skill, but also whom we knew would play well in the sandbox, and be part of the team, who got the sort of gestalt of the organization. And we worked well together throughout. We had - we argued about tactics from time to time, but there was a sense of mutual regard and the candidate himself held that up. He looked to us, he questioned us closely, asked us to defend our points of view. But ultimately, he let us do our jobs. And it made a lot of difference in the outcome of the campaign." R: "The first test of somebody's ability to be a leader in office is how they run their campaign. Their jobs is to be the candidate; but they also need to be the person who organizes a structure, that is capable of making decisions, while they focus on their jobs as a candidate. And that is exactly what you touched on, 'How do you have people who can strongly disagree with each other but come to a decision about how to act and act, and at the end of it, not be leaking and stabbing each other." A: "One of the reasons I think people ultimately decided Obama could be president, thought he had four years out of the Illinois State Senate, was they watched the campaign for two years and they saw how he dealt with different challenges, and how the organization ran. And it gave them some confidence that he had executive skills that were necessary. It's the world's longest oral exam." R: "And look - particularly when you run for president, but also in other campaigns, my sense is people know you're going to screw it up some point - they want to see how you handle adversity; they want to know, if you get knocked down, do you get up, and do you get back in the fight? And are you - do you show courage, do you show integrity? Determination? Because they're sitting there - particularly for president, but I think all the way down the ballot - they want to know what you're made of. That - it speaks to your character."

Mia S.

R: "When you organize a campaign - particularly the bigger the campaign, you've got to be careful about a couple of things. First of all, there's a certain amount of overhead you need to have: you need to have a campaign manager, and you need to have somebody probably for a congressional campaign or a governor's campaign, raising money. You need researchers, you need somebody to deal with the press, and you need somebody in charge of the field organization. But be very careful about consultants - be careful about getting loaded up with too many of them, and too expensively, particularly the people who do the media. I'd say two more things: First of all, sometimes young and inexperienced but enthusiastic is good enough. I've seen plenty of campaigns - particularly campaigns for state senate or state house, where somebody who'd never really been involved in a campaign but was willing to accept direction and guidance, was capable of being the field operative, or handling the scheduler, or traveling with the candidate, or doing social media. So just because somebody has not done it before doesn't mean they necessarily can't do it. Second of all, I'd say look for people who care about the candidate, not just the cash - somebody who says, 'I want this opportunity because I believe in the candidate and what the candidate stands for.' That's better than somebody who says, 'I just want this opportunity.' And that's better than somebody who says, 'You know what? I'm in this for the money.' So a lot of it - particularly when it comes to a campaign manager - you want to have somebody who's committed to you personally, and somebody in whom you can be personally committed to, because some of these people - like the campaign manager and key advisers of the campaign, and you're not only counting on them to do a really good job, you're also counting on them to tell you the truth. And particularly the campaign manager and your press people are going to be people who have to say to you sometime, 'Boss, with all due respect, I think you ought to do something else. You shouldn't say that, you should say this.' And that's why having people who are personally committed to you matters. There needs to be, in the campaign, a process by which decisions are going to be made. Somebody needs to be in charge of - they're the shot caller on this, and there's clarity inside the campaign; I don't care if it's a race for the city council in a small town, or for the presidency, there has to be a group that is charged with making the decision about how to respond, and when to respond, that has ownership of that plan that you've laid out for how you want messaging to be executed, that is on top of this. The last thing in a campaign you want is to be making decisions on the fly with nobody - with no clear lines of authority; and without authority and responsibility being put together in the same group or person."