In the new episode of our “educational” series The Audit, Dave, Josh and their study buddy Senator Nina Turner audit the next six lessons of David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s 24-part MasterClass on campaign strategy and messaging. We’re not sure why there are so many lessons — our best guess is that they’re getting paid per word.
This week, Axelrod takes a break from praising his friend Karl Rove and talks about his even better friend, former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While Axelrod speaks glowingly of Emanuel, the study group recounts how during Emanuel’s re-election campaign for mayor of Chicago, his administration spent more than a year withholding damning dashcam footage of the police killing of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. Suffice it to say, this episode elicits strong reactions from the study group.
A rough transcript of this episode is available here.
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In addition to The Audit’s podcast content, their creative team does extensive research on each season’s subject matter. This season, they delved into Axelrod and Rove’s history, even though they certainly, definitely, absolutely, did not want to.
Please enjoy The Audit’s comprehensive research below.
The Axelrod-Rove Master Class, Part 3
Rove made his first splash by finding thousands of Texas donors through direct mail campaigns. One of his heroes is Mark Hanna, who leveraged oil barons’ money to fund William McKinley’s 1896 Presidential run. Hanna once said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
Two major money issues are left undiscussed in Rove and Axelrod’s MasterClass.
Unless they can finance their own campaigns, most candidates have to appeal to the parties, wealthy donors, and political action committees, or PACs. So novices watching this MasterClass are in for a rough awakening, because the establishment doesn’t just select candidates on their merits, but also on how much money they’re likely to bring in. Progressive-left candidates have to face the Democrats, who ration money and consultants:
In order to establish whether a person is worthy of official backing, DCCC operatives will “rolodex” a candidate, according to a source familiar with the procedure. On the most basic level, it involves candidates being asked to pull out their smartphones, scroll through their contacts lists, and add up the amount of money their contacts could raise or contribute to their campaigns. If the candidates’ contacts aren’t good for at least $250,000, or in some cases much more, they fail the test, and party support goes elsewhere. (The Intercept, “The Dead Enders,” January 2018)
Also unmentioned in the MasterClass is Bernie Sanders’ direct fundraising machine, which matched Hillary’s corporate-backed effort while relying on individual donations. The strategy was part and parcel with Sanders’ dislike of corporate and PAC funding, and it works around conventional political reasoning. But not everyone can run convincingly as an anti-corporate gadfly.
Thanks to Citizens United, super PACs that can raise unlimited donations have exploded in money and influence. In 2012, super PACs spent more money on campaigns ($2.5 billion) than the parties did. But super PACs are barely mentioned in this course. This is like teaching house-flipping without mentioning mortgages.
Rove’s founded a few super PACs since his Bush days. The first was American Crossroads PAC, which Rove launched with former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie in 2010. Its main purpose was to establish Rove as the big bundler for the Republican Party, which meant he would gather massive checks from billionaires and dispense them as he saw fit.
His next group, the Conservative Victory Project, was intended to back moderate Republican candidates who were properly vetted, and not loser Tea Party crackpots. A lot of Republicans were furious that he’d do such a thing.
By 2016, many Republicans (including Jeb Bush) were avoiding Rove. So he was happy to meet with Donald Trump to strategize on super PAC money and spending — even after calling him “a petty man consumed by resentment and bitterness.” In 2020, Business Insider reported that Rove was advising Jared Kushner on Trump’s campaign.
Don’t Forget to Say Thank You
A key takeaway from Rove and Axelrod: Your donors will greatly appreciate a handwritten thank you letter.
Another way to thank them is to pass legislation that benefits them. But a nice handwritten thank you letter makes it personal.
The Campaign Message
Axelrod and Rove insist that they perform a high-minded public service. In segment 3, Axelrod called campaigns “an MRI for the soul,” like “long, very rigorous oral exams.” Rove said that they were “about revealing a candidate with strengths and weaknesses” that “results in better decisions for the voters and more and better candidates.” He concludes that it’s more like “the emperor’s new clothes. At the end of that parade, we saw the emperor buck naked exactly as he was.” So campaign strategists are really the revealers of truth.
Rove talks about calibrating attacks to be “important, relevant and true.” But as for truth… if you’ve got a friendly Justice Department investigating your opponents, simply reporting on such politically motivated investigations makes your attack ads “true.”
Axelrod provides characteristically vague assurances about attack ads, such as that these efforts are “part of a larger argument.” When strategists like Rove run attack ads like the famous “Willie Horton” and “white hands” ads, this “larger argument” apparently includes outright racism.
Neither Rove nor Axelrod can state the simple truth. They can’t give us wisdom that will clean up campaigns and fight lies and slander. They also can’t be honest and teach us a real professional approach to running campaigns. So they pretend to be doing some vague, unverifiable good.
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