Q & A with David Axelrod, the hottest political consultant between the coasts.
A 10,000-word interview with Axelrod, now a top Obama adviser, was originally published in the Chicago Reader on July 12, 1991; this is an excerpt. The author now goes by Sarah Bryan Miller.
By Bryan Miller
January 15, 2009
He was a “winner of 1989” and a “face to watch in the 1990s.” He’s one of the “Democratic Party’s rising stars,” the man “with the mysterious magic touch.” The Sun-Times’s Steve Neal admires his ability to frame issues and calls him “the kingmaker.”
The rising star of the Democratic Party is not a sleek, airbrushed politician in a carefully tailored suit, and he’s never run for nor been elected to anything. On this particular afternoon he looks decidedly scruffy in a lavender T-shirt, baggy gray pants, sneakers, a droopy mustache, and unkempt hair that could use a trim. His office is given over to family pictures, sports memorabilia, and artifacts of the brewing industry—a tall Schlitz trophy, an electric-guitar-shaped Budweiser sign, an enormous clock that also commemorates Bud—almost as much as it is to political mementos: framed tributes from clients Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington, the pen that Paul Simon used to sign his oath of office for his first Senate term, and a note from Lynn Martin, a former Simon opponent and the current U.S. secretary of labor, that says, “Dear Dave, Although we do not know each other well, I’d like to pass on a real compliment. Whatever the reason, I’m glad you won’t be with Paul Simon. You’re very, very good.”
David Axelrod is hot. Seven years after he left the Tribune, where he was a political editor, to work on the first senatorial campaign of Paul Simon, the 36-year-old former Manhattanite and graduate of the University of Chicago is the only heavy-hitting political consultant between the coasts. In the 1990 Illinois primaries, every single one of his candidates made the cut: Dick Phelan, for county board president; Dawn Clark Netsch, for state comptroller; Patrick Quinn, for state treasurer; David Orr, for county clerk; Cecil Partee, for Cook County state’s attorney; and Chuck Bernardini, for county commissioner. He also works for candidates in Utah and Ohio and Iowa, and he generally gets them elected. He knows how to use the news media and knows how to make convincing TV commercials.
Axelrod is intense, aggressive, manifestly intelligent, extremely verbal, argumentative, and highly competitive. His politics are standard leftist: he talks about Republicans as “country clubbers” with the fervor of one who really believes it, despite the electoral evidence of the last few years. He jiggles a leg constantly as he answers questions. He wheels his Saab—sans seat belt—through heavy traffic with one hand constantly on the car phone, expertly transferring from one call to the next, in a virtually nonstop virtuoso demonstration of the utility of call waiting. He lives in Oak Park with his wife and three young children.
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Axelrod & Associates now boasts eight employees: seven (including Axelrod) work in an industrial-chic office on North Franklin that feels curiously unfinished, and one works in Washington. Together they seem likely to continue their rise to political prominence as the premier media manipulators of the baby-boom generation.
Let’s start with a little background. How did you get into political reporting, and from there into consulting?
I started writing while I was at the University of Chicago. I was always interested in politics and in news, and I worked on political campaigns even as a young kid in New York. I came out here, and this was an interesting sort of laboratory for politics. And I got a job writing for the Hyde Park Herald, a political column, and stringing for Time magazine. Then I got an internship at the Tribune the summer I graduated, which was 1976, and I got hired after that.
I worked my way onto the political beat, and then in 1981 or so I became a political writer for the paper, wrote a column. And then I left in ’84 to go to work for Paul Simon, who was running against [Charles] Percy. I was supposed to be the communications director, and I ended up as the manager after a few weeks, because [the campaign] was kind of a mess. We won that race—I was deeply involved in framing the message of that campaign—and off of that experience I opened up this business.
When a reporter goes over to the enemy side—joins a campaign or takes a political job—the pure of heart all roll their eyes. Did you see being a reporter as a way to get into political work, or did your thinking change along the line?
Well, first of all, I don’t necessarily view the two pursuits as polar opposites to start with. I certainly didn’t start as a reporter with the idea of making the move. I love reporting, I love journalism—and I was good enough to know that I was starting to report the same stories over and over. I wanted to leave before I got burned out.
Has being on the other side changed your attitude toward the press?
No. I have a different attitude toward the press than people who’ve spent their careers in politics do. I appreciate the role of the press—it’s not to coddle politicians. For one thing, I know that if a politician starts complaining about coverage and starts picking apart coverage, it means that campaign’s in trouble. I think I put some balance into the discussion.
Why didn’t you stay with the Simon campaign when he won? If you were managing it, couldn’t you have had a nice job with him after the race?
In the Senate offices? Yeah. But that was never what I was interested in doing.
Besides, I don’t want to work for anybody else. I like working for myself. Secondly, I didn’t want to go into government. Third, I like campaigns, and I wanted to work in campaigns. Fourth, I like Chicago, and I hate Washington. I resisted going to Washington when I was a reporter, and I’ve resisted moving to Washington as a consultant—because I like the lifestyle here, and because I’m more effective working in a place where people don’t talk about the Federal Register over dinner, with real people who have real concerns.
Are you a political consultant, or a media consultant—how do you define yourself?
Well, the terms tend to be somewhat fluid. I am a political media consultant, and we tend to get involved in everything that has to do with the message of a campaign—so [we do] free media strategy, press strategy, speech writing, composition of literature, as well as the production of commercials.
So how do you sell a candidate? What’s the process? If I come to you and say “Help me with my campaign,” what happens next?
Well, first of all, we have to find a way to let people know you’re a woman, because your name’s very confusing.
Every campaign, I think, begins with essentially the same process, and that process is a gathering of as much information as possible about your candidate, about your opponents, and about the political environment in which you’re working. What we’re about is the business of developing a message for that campaign. And by message I mean an argument, much as a lawyer would develop a case or an argument for a courtroom—except in this case the jury is that electorate that you’re trying to influence at the polls.
And so you ought to go into a race pretty much understanding what your comparative advantages are, what issues work to your benefit, where your strengths abut your opponent’s weaknesses on issues that are important to people. And then you try and drive the debate that way, and make the race about the issues that you want the race to be about. You do that through a combination of free media—in other words, press conferences, speeches, debates—and paid media, which are commercials, which tend to come later in the campaign.
So if we were to take a candidate, the first thing we would do is spend some time asking an awful lot of questions, looking at clips and past history, assessing what we think might be opportunities, assessing what we think might be problems. And then we go through the same process in looking at our opponents, and make some suppositions about arguments that we could posit. And then we test them in polling to see which arguments resonate with people, and then we build a message around those arguments that we know or that we’re confident will work with people.
You try to make a candidate proactive rather than reactive.
There’s no question that in politics it’s better to be setting the pace than reacting to other people. Campaigns are about defining the issues upon which the election is going to be decided, and making sure those issues are your issues and not your opponent’s issues.
A good example is what George Bush did to Mike Dukakis in 1988: he dominated the debate, put Dukakis on the defensive, and really dictated the terms by which people made their decision. He not only defined himself, but he defined Dukakis—in a way that I think crippled Dukakis. So while I don’t necessarily applaud either the outcome or some of the tactics, it was sort of a textbook case of message dominance, partly because of Dukakis’s unwillingness to respond, participate in the process.
What would you have done differently in that situation?
Unquestionably, when you are hit as hard and as negatively as Dukakis was hit, you have to respond, and you have to respond swiftly, and you have to respond in a tough-minded way.
Rather than quickly responding to Bush’s attacks with counterattacks, they let them ride and instead chose to disdain Bush’s tactics. They went with commercials sort of playacting—cynical Bush advisers plotting and scheming against Dukakis—so they really kind of missed the point there. He arrogantly refused to engage in the process. And so when people say that he was the victim of character assassination, my response is that he was the victim of character suicide really, because he let it happen to himself.
What about working on a presidential election?
They’re pretty demanding. I think it would knock a lot of things off the floor. My notion now is that the best way to participate in presidential races is as a subcontractor, as part of a large team of creative people, not as the majordomo.
I was planning to ask you about negative ads and whether they work—obviously you’d say that in the case of George Bush and Michael Dukakis they did.
If an attack goes unresponded to, there’s a much greater likelihood that it’s going to work—and that was the case certainly with Dukakis and Bush. I think negative attacks are going to work if they’re well documented, or if they’re predicated on newspaper reporting, because I think people are justifiably skeptical of these commercials’ positive endings. So when third parties step in and essentially assert the validity of the attack, I think people are far more willing to accept them.
Now, I think that gratuitous personal attacks tend not to work, attacks that are based more on inference and insinuation than fact. Do I think there is a receptivity to negative advertising? I think there probably is. I don’t think that people have a very elevated feeling about public officials today. And so you’re swimming downstream if you shed light on some shortcoming of a public official. But I still think people are fair-minded, and if the attack is unwarranted they’ll reject it.
Do you use negative advertising?
Well, my feeling about politics is that when candidates put their names on the ballot, and voters vote, voters don’t say, “Which of these candidates do I love the most? They’re all great guys, but who is the greatest?” That’s not how they choose. They make very tough comparisons—they want to know who’s on their side of various issues that are important to them. And I think that in most cases it’s incumbent on you as a media consultant and a campaign adviser to help fill in the information they need to make that decision. So we do, in many cases, advertising that creates contrast between our candidate and the opponent.
How did you overcome the perception of Mayor Daley as a dummy? I forget who it was who called him “Dumb-Dumb Daley,” but that was indicative of his image not so long ago.
In the initial campaign, in 1989, we made one adjustment at the beginning of the campaign. We made a commercial, and in it Daley addressed the camera and at one point he said, “I may not be the best speaker in town, but I know how to bring people together and run a government.” And that one line was quite useful for us, because it showed some self-awareness and it was important for us to separate out the fact that Daley is not always the most articulate speaker from the issue of whether he was bright and capable. Now, frankly, that’s no longer an issue. You can talk to the man on the street or you can look at polling, and I think that Daley’s pretty well dispelled the notion that he isn’t bright. And I can tell you from personal experience that I don’t know anybody with more intuitive insights into government and people than Rich Daley, and that’s the reason he is where he is. I would love to take credit for the success of Rich Daley, but the success of Rich Daley is 95 percent a result of his own tremendous insights and instincts.
And in his business, instinct may be more important than raw intellectual horsepower.
Yeah. I think the thing about Daley that’s so engaging is that he is very straightforward and instinctual in his responses, and I think people understand that he is not trying to pull a fast one on anybody. We interviewed Saul Bellow for a film we did to kick off the campaign, and he said about Daley, “What you see is what you get, and what you get is very good.” I think he’s right. He also said, and I agree with him, that Daley is atypical of politicians in that he is totally without guile. I think people appreciate that.
For a guy who’s grown up in and around politics all his life, he’s remarkably unpolitical in his approach to the public. Or apolitical, I should say. I think he’s far more interested in government than politics. Rich Daley thinks a fun day is sitting around and solving some bureaucratic snafu in government.
His father was highly political in a way that this Daley is not. I think his political instincts are tremendous, but I think his desire to shape all things political around him is nonexistent.
What kinds of things do you advise him on?
My expertise is in the areas of language and how to shape issues, and in the course of a campaign my role is to work through with him and the staff what the fundamental messages of that campaign are going to be, and then come up with ideas and with language and ultimately with media that bring those messages home. So that’s my function. I’m not, and I don’t seek to be, a policymaker. I don’t think that’s an appropriate role for a consultant.
Would you ever urge against a given policy if you thought it was a real mistake, or is that not your job?
Oh, I think I would make my feelings known; they won’t always be necessarily heeded.
How did you first get hooked up with him?
Well, I covered him as a reporter, and I wrote that magazine story about him in 1982, and that was the first sort of sustained contact I had with him. I went in with no real predisposition, positive or negative, and I was impressed by him and the people around him when I wrote that piece. Then I covered the ‘83 mayoral race for the Tribune, so I had some fairly consistent exposure to him. After I left the paper I kept in contact, and in 1988, after Harold died, it was obvious to me that he might run for mayor, and I went and I talked to a number of the people who were thinking of running. And I just felt most comfortable with him and with his group—primarily with him. And I signed on to do his state’s attorney’s reelection race in 1988 with a mind toward working for him if he decided to run for mayor in ’89.
Is it true that all of the would-be mayoral candidates approached you after Harold Washington died? Byrne, Daley, Evans . . . ?
I’m trying to think if all of them did. There were a lot of them. I spoke with most of them; I don’t remember talking with Ed Vrdolyak. But I had conversations with a number of people who contacted me, who were interested in running; some of them ran, some of them didn’t. But I have absolutely no question in my mind that I went with the right guy.
What did you think of Washington?
Harold Washington was one of the most engaging personalities I’ve ever encountered in my whole life. He was just a charming, interesting guy. I think that as a politician he was absolutely masterful, and what he did for the city in terms of breaking down some barriers that absolutely had to be broken down was enormously important. I think that whereas Daley revels in sitting behind a desk making decisions and involving himself in the details of government, Washington was less interested in that than he was in the theater of politics.
I think that Washington was a good mayor, but not in the same sense that Daley is. I think that Daley is a good hands-on chief executive. I think Washington was not a good hands-on chief executive, but that he was what Chicago needed at the time: someone who had the determination to break with the old ways and change the way the city did its business. So I think he was an important historical figure in the city, and in the growth and development of the city. But for Harold, polemics and rhetoric were sort of the essential core of his politics, and that’s not the case with Daley.
I don’t know what would have happened over time with Washington as mayor; I had concerns at the time that he was strangled in some ways, or allowed himself to be, or wanted to be, by the group around him. I thought his aides were too constrictive in terms of the flow of information, and there was an awful lot of infighting there that was unproductive. And he kind of allowed that, and in odd ways encouraged it, and he was very isolated from a lot of the decision making because of it.
I don’t know what that would have meant in the long run, but in the short run he did some extraordinarily important things, in terms of changing government’s orientation, and changing the public orientation toward government, and forcefully saying we’re going to open and distribute certain services equitably; we’re not going to put the same premium on politics that we did in the past. And he set a standard that I think every mayor’s going to have to adhere to in the future in those regards.
When you’re placing your commercials, do you put them on all the channels, or just the channels with the highest ratings?
We apportion our media dollars according to a few factors. One is who the likely voters are. We tend to advertise more heavily on news adjacencies than commercial advertisers would, because people who watch the news tend to be people who are motivated enough to vote. And from race to race the rest of the fine-tuning depends upon research—once you make a judgment as to who your likely voters are, then you gear the media to the programming that they’re likely to watch.
So, for example, if you think you have either a problem or a great opportunity among women who work in the home, you might buy more daytime programming—the Oprah Winfrey-type programming. But if your target is blue-collar men, you look more closely at your weekend sports programs.
How much information can you really get into a 30-second spot?
You can get a fair amount of information in there, but I would be less than candid if I told you that after watching a series of commercials a voter could expound in great detail on what a candidate stands for. But I do think that the spots convey a basic sense of who candidates are—at least a successful spot. Thirty seconds is not the most desirable length in which to communicate anything of great substance, but my experience has been that by the end of every campaign people have made judgments about candidates that are fairly accurate. And in the amalgam of all the spots and all the public debate comes through an image that tends to be fairly accurate.
Isn’t it easier to sell emotion than, say, cold, hard economic facts?
Sure, that’s true. And it’s always been true in politics—here and, I imagine, elsewhere—that emotional appeals often are more effective than cerebral ones. But I still return to the point I made before, which is that I think by and large people do get a sense from these campaigns about who the candidates are and what they stand for, even if they’re a little hazy on some of the specifics. I hate to apologize for the system, but I think the system’s working better probably than the handwringers over at the League of Women Voters and other places are willing to concede.
You always make a point about how you only work for Democrats.
Is this party loyalty usually the case among consultants? Do most of your peers work just one side of the street or the other?
There are consultants who cross the line, but by and large consultants tend to work for people within their own party. They are not without ideology and philosophy, which is, I suspect, the misconception about us. Most of us bring to this a point of view and seek out candidates who reflect that point of view and certainly who reflect our partisan commitments. I certainly do.
So why the Democrats?
Because I believe in the Democratic Party. It represents the broad majority of Americans.
Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to offer?
I think politicians tend to blame media consultants for the low esteem in which politicians have been held, as if the media consultants were responsible for the Vietnam war, or for Watergate, or the savings-and-loan crisis, and so on. The fact is that politicians have done a lot to erode their own positions in the public estimation. Campaigns today, I think, are less acrimonious, less personal, less gratuitous in some ways than they had been at other times in our history. Clearly television changes the magnitude of every charge—and makes it larger and can, in very short order, change the nature of the campaign. And that’s what everybody fears, and that’s what everybody’s concerned about. But while I’d say that it’s an imperfect situation, I’d say that it’s preferable to having campaigns censored, and speech limited, and terms dictated about how you can present yourself to voters.