In the new episode of our “educational” series The Audit, Dave, Josh, and their study buddy Senator Nina Turner make their way through the next FIVE lessons from David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s 24-part MasterClass on campaign strategy and messaging. We tried to warn them about consuming so much garbage in one sitting, but their commitment to education is unparalleled.
This week, the study group learn from the “masters” how to conduct campaign research and understand your voters. At least that’s what Axelrod and Rove claim they’re teaching. The study group offers their counter-narrative: David Axelrod accidentally stumbled across a once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate who didn’t really need him, while Karl Rove used vile smears to destroy his political opponents. But hey, who actually remembers these things?
Click here for a rough transcript of the episode.
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Each season, The Audit’s creative team does extensive research on the relevant 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 MasterClass, Part 2
This course really reinforces the stereotypes about feckless, well-meaning Democrats and ruthless, pragmatic Republicans. Axelrod’s all about vagueness: messaging, authenticity, relatability. He pushes consensus and diversity, talks about his candidates’ deficiencies, and even praises Reagan and Bush. Rove, on the other hand, talks about planning, logistics, and strategy, including advising on attack strategies, and conveniently avoids discussing his losses.
Assessing The Candidate, Researching Your Opponent
Rove says the first question strategists need to ask their candidates is, “Why are you running?” I.e, what do they offer to voters? It’s a fine starting point.
But the 2016 election violated pretty much everything these guys have to say. According to Shattered, the Clinton campaign struggled to answer this question from the very beginning. In the end, all they had was “to stop Trump.”
Nobody vetted those candidates like these guys suggest. A decades-long smear campaign had damaged Hillary, who had a history of bad policymaking, had engaged in suspect business deals, and was disliked by her own party. Trump was a loutish, famously corrupt bigot with a history of sexual assault. They both made it to the top. One became president.
While discussing candidate deficiencies like undisclosed mental illness and drinking problems, Axelrod chooses to focus on women and their unique disadvantages. Later on, he calls for more women to ensure diversity in politics… but he patiently explains why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory was due to her being a “good candidate for her district.” Never mind the hard work she and her campaign did to beat a complacent party hack.
Hilariously, Rove presents “opposition research” as something with actual ethics. But his takedown of Lena Guerrero in the 1992 Texas Railroad Commissioner race used private student records. In Alabama, he accused his opponent of pedophilia, and in the race he describes, he even launched fake attacks on his own candidate to create a backlash. His prime example — the “swiftboating” of John Kerry — was a barrage of slanders, funded with millions from Bush associates.
The Campaign Plan
Rove offers some excellent advice in these segments — develop a plan, check voter data to understand the terrain, give motivated campaign staffers responsibilities that cultivate their talents.
Rove counsels against loading up on consultants — he’s known for his attention to detail, so this clearly works for him. But the Democrats love enriching their party’s consultants, going so far as to hire and reward people with long records of failure. They even enacted a policy of forcing candidates to work with approved consultants, which prevents campaigns from adopting a hands-on approach.
Understanding The Electorate
It’s surprising that the 2000 election scared Republicans, given Bush’s victory. But that’s because Democrats had a better ground game. This led to the development of microtargeting; covered in Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab.
Neither Axelrod nor Rove discuss the push poll: using poll questions to plant ideas in voters’ heads. Most examples of this strategy come from Republicans; such as polls that ask about lesbians related to Texas’ Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, rumors of John McCain’s illegitimate Black child, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, and Obama being “praised” by Hamas. If Democrats use similar techniques, nobody has reported on it.
David Axelrod is enchanted with focus groups, comparing them to group therapy. You herd people with free time into a temporary office, force them to answer questions like, “If the candidates were animals, what kind of animal would they be?” And boom, the voice of the people is heard.
Axelrod isn’t unique among Democrats. Liza Featherstone’s book Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation explains how focus groups filter the vox populi through polls, questionnaires, and structured feedback:
Traditionally, people have advanced their own interests by organizing and confronting the powerful. They do this by working together in groups. The focus group harnesses this cooperative impulse, but its only result is the production of data that serves the interests of the powerful. Groups have often been a means — indeed, for those without money, the only means — of building power, but the focus group, like the isolated individual, can only provide information. This is why the focus group is a quintessential ritual of, to borrow the historian Lizabeth Cohen’s phrase, “a consumer’s republic.”
Such groups can explain why we are running. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton:
Planned to spend $2 million on focus groups and surveys in 2014 and 2015 in order to come up with a “rationale” for running for president. Clinton’s braintrust — headquartered in gentrified Brooklyn Heights — sought, via its survey apparatus, to answer such questions as “Why is she running?” “Who is she?” and “Why does she care?” Let’s sit with that a moment: A person who spent the bulk of her adult years in public life is so estranged, both from the general public and from her own self, that she needed focus groups to tell her why she was running.
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