What I Learned Watching Karl Rove and David Axelrod Talk for Five Damn Hours

Surely a webinar taught by two of the most successful campaigners of the 21st century would contain some insight, right? Right?

by Eve Peyser
Nov 2 2018, 7:25pm

David Axelrod and Karl Rove via MasterClass

The announcement last week that that political strategists Karl Rove and David Axelrod were co-teaching a MasterClass about “campaign strategy and messaging” elicited a soft groan from nearly everyone who knew what all those words meant. Rove was the chief campaign strategist for President George W. Bush, a.k.a. “Bush’s brain,” who acquired such a reputation as a practitioner of the dark political arts that he once joked about being Darth Vader. David Axelrod played a similar role for Barack Obama, guiding him to two presidential terms before sliding into a punditry gig on CNN and a podcast. The pairing was incongruous, to say the least, but apparently they were teaming up to teach paying customers about campaigning. “Hahaha what is this,” a Mother Jones editor tweeted. “Does this mean Axelrod approves of Rove’s campaign tactics and that they should be taught to and emulated by future campaigns?” a New York Times writer wondered.

I was taught from an early age that Rove was one of the two most evil men in politics, the other being Dick Cheney. But I was intrigued. Surely a webinar taught by two of the most successful campaigners of the 21st century would contain some insight, right? Right? And at the very least, I would surely know a little bit more about why the Bush era was such a huge disaster.

As the first video began, I realized agreeing to watch a five-hour series chock full of practical advice about how to run a political campaign—something I hope to never do—was a mistake. It was long. It was tedious. But I came out of it thinking: Hey, I could probably be a decent political strategist if I didn’t shudder at the idea of full-time shilling for someone else, and if working in politics didn’t seem kind of boring. There’s your blurb, MasterClass.

The class was broken into 24 videos, with topics ranging from opposition research to budgeting and fundraising to mobilizing volunteers. A campaign, Axelrod asserts multiple times, is like "an MRI for the soul." When it comes to opposition research, which the savvy heads call "oppo," Rove says, "the counterpunch is stronger than the punch itself," so you have to be careful about the ways you attack your opponent. According to Axelrod, "Negative media is like radiation therapy." Basically, in order to be successful, you have to anticipate your opponent's response to your attacks, get to know what your constituents are concerned about, and most importantly, make sure your candidate has a clear, authentic message. If your candidate has clear weaknesses, you should concede what potential voters don't like about him or her, and turn it into an asset. Being media savvy is a necessity—which is mostly why I think I could thrive in the world of political consulting.

I have to say, I enjoyed watching Rove and Axelrod interact with each other. They’re operators, not ideologues; though they’re worlds apart politically, they have great affection for one another. And their connection goes deeper than just having similar jobs on opposite sides of the aisle: As they explain in an early video, their friendship blossomed because they each had a parent die of suicide. The videos were essentially two buddies talking shop, isolating the elements of a successful political campaign while seldom broaching the ideology and morality inherent in politics. It’s how to run a campaign, never why. Both men offered up good, general advice on how to win an election. Rove is obsessed with microtargeting constituents through advertising, and thinks direct mail is an eternally good way to reach potential voters. Axelrod, on the other hand, preaches the gospel of conducting focus groups as a way to understand what voters are concerned about.

It does simulate a real class in that as you watch the two men prattle on about how to properly fundraise and harness the power of social media and yadda yadda yadda, your mind drifts. Karl Rove’s head is a soft cube, a nebula of skin. The shape of David Axelrod’s mouth is fascinating: The curved pout of his bottom lip connects to the thin edge of the top like a puzzle piece. Both men look weirdly good when I put the Kylie Jenner lip kit Instagram filter on them.

Some of the class devolves into war stories of the sort only the most committed collector of campaign trivia could love. According to Rove, in 2004, if you lived in Ohio and owned a pickup truck, you were a Bush voter; if you owned a Volvo, you were voting for John Kerry. When Obama was presented with his iconic logo in 2008, he told Axelrod he thought it was a bit “corporate.” He also asked Axelrod if the slogan “yes we can” was “too corny,” but Michelle convinced him otherwise. There was also extremely good, if somewhat obvious advice: Usually, presidential exit polls are wrong, and it is a big, big mistake to laugh at your opponent’s joke during a debate. “There is no off the record,” Axelrod says of modern politics, using the infamous 2008 video of Obama saying at a fundraiser that rural Pennsylvanians “cling to their guns” as an explanation for why they might not vote for him. (This wasn’t exactly a lesson in the videos, but I learned it anyway: Hearing Obama’s voice while playing a video at double speed is extremely intense and mildly erotic.)

I also learned that Rove, the man behind some notably dirty campaigns, is “astonished” at what people comment on the Facebook and Twitter postings of public figures, and think “it’s shocking... how people can be so rude, crude, and disrespectful.”

Axelrod and Rove saved the best for last. In the penultimate video, titled “The Current State of Politics,” the two men finally get a little ideological and talk about what led this to our current divisive political hell. This is, I imagine, what most people watching these videos are most concerned with—not how to navigate the partisan swamp, but how it got so polluted in the first place. “Donald Trump was the most authentic agent of change,” Axelrod says. “There’s a replica and a remedy, and voters rarely choose the replica of what they have. Donald Trump was the anti-Obama in every way… If it’s a change election, someone whose calling card is experience is not going to be the answer.”

“The Democrats worked very hard to elect the one person Donald Trump could beat,” Rove opines, noting that Clinton’s campaign lacked a message. (Axelrod agrees: He repeats that the sure sign of a losing campaign is cycling through multiple slogans, which Clinton did with “I’m with her,” “stronger together,” and “love trumps hate.”) Breaking the glass ceiling, Rove asserts, “was not a powerful enough message… Hillary didn’t understand that the less you talked about being a woman, the better off she was.” He compares her campaign—not favorably—to Obama’s '08 campaign. “He didn’t got out there and say, ‘Hey vote for me. I’m going to be the first African-African president,’” Rove notes. “He let it simply be seen in his conduct: This a man worthy of the highest office in the land and wouldn’t it be great for our country as an expression of how we’ve come if he were elected.”

Rove and Axelrod are still wary of Trump’s 2020 chances. As Rove points out, “The president’s weakness is he’s only focused on his base.” The spirit of the project itself, as well as the strategic advice both men give, send a clear message: The key to a successful political campaign is capturing the zeitgeist of the country, and also winning a broad group of people over.

In the final video, Axelrod and Rove say they hope that regardless of whether you want to work in politics, their class inspires you to be engaged in politics. "That's fucking fantastic," Axelrod says to Rove after he makes his final remarks. The two men look at each other warmly, and giggle.

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