Lessons from: Axelrod D., Believer: My Forty Years in Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2015) pp. 509


“Politics and elections are only vehicles, not destinations” – David Axelrod

A brief reflection on the book so as to look at it in totality is posted in the book review. Information about the author and the background to the book is found in the reflection as well. Nevertheless, for the richness of this book, I strongly felt that I should outline lessons learnt for politics and campaigning purposes. In this entry I will thus focus on things through which aspiring politicians or candidates of various political offices from Presidency downward can gain insight.

This is also part of a number of analyses of elections and campaigns that will be subject matters of this page.

I hope such will be useful. In general 2015 is a year of interesting elections that started in Greece and Israel. Soon we will have one in Nigeria, then UK and in October we will have one in Tanzania.


An effective election campaign requires a focused committed team. It is important to remember that campaigning is not about the candidate. It is about the team. And it is the team that wins.

The Team:

–       Campaign NOT about ONE PERSON but a TEAM

–       Total commitment from everybody involved in the effort

–       Community involvement

 The team, like organization teamwork needs to have vision, mission, values, and strategies. The strategies are divided into different sub teams. There are also team leaders who overseas main areas of campaigning.

Before going into those organizational and logistical issues, let us first look at the Candidate.

The Candidate:

Of course the candidate is the core figure in the campaign. Thus, the quality of the candidate as a person matters enormously and he has to have some virtues.

Throughout the book, Axelrod emphasizes (at times implicitly) on the following values for political candidates:

–       Authenticity

–       Purpose

–       Patience

–       Decency

–       Character

–       Wisdom

–       Grace

–       Toughness

–       Prioritization

Here are some quotes from the book that can underscore one of the above values- authenticity.

“There are a lot of pressures to sell out in politics, so you have to know what you believe and be ready to fight for it…. you’d rather lose with principle than win by standing for nothing” p.67

“Barack was principled enough to stand alone when necessary, but pragmatic enough to make deals and get things done” p. 124

Confidence and a sense of purpose is another virtue that a candidate must possess. To know exactly what you want. Here is a quote that can help us understand this:

“What seemed slightly less implausible was the notion that someone else would want to cash in on Barack’s talents and make him their number two. Yet Obama had no interest in running for vice president, even if he were offered the spot. He was not a man suited for the second chair.” p.163

“Barack demonstrated an uncanny ability to forge consensus, often mediating between the parties and among factions within his own.” p.121

 Prioritization based on genuine self-evaluation

Related to and also part of the values is prioritization. Before running for such a demanding job (i.e. any political office), one need to think about priorities especially the implication to his/her family among other crucial aspects of life and realities.

“Self confidence though he was, he was not blind to the audacity of such a candidacy or, more important, the organizational challenges of pulling it off. No less daunting would be the challenge of persuading Michelle that his running for the presidency would be the right path for their young family”. p. 182

“And often, the politicians – even the genuinely introspective ones…- lacked a clear-eyed view of themselves” p. 101

“Wisdom and experience have their place, but campaigns demand the energy and mental acuity of youth”. p. 8

To understand the above citation, the below quote is relevant:

“So 2012 had to be a different kind of campaign, more modest in its ambitions and more pointed in drawing out deficiencies of our opponent. In 2008 we had built a once-in-a-generation movement for change. In 2012 we simply ran a very proficient political campaign” p.7


The candidate needs to differentiate him/herself with other candidates and also the incumbent of the position that he/she wants to occupy:

“When incumbents step down, voters rarely opt for a replica of what they have, even when that outgoing leader is popular. They almost always choose change over the status quo. They want successors whose strengths address the perceived weaknesses in the departing leader.” p.93

 “With few exceptions, the history of presidential politics shows that public opinion and attitudes about who should next occupy the office are largely shaped by the perceptions of the retiring incumbent. And rarely do voters look for a replica. Instead they generally choose a course correction, selecting a candidate who will address the deficiencies of outgoing President…” p. 194


The candidate must have a vision on why he/she is running for the office. As an election campaign consultant, Axelrod, would always ask his potential client of the reasons why he is running. The client’s answer would determine whether he would take the assignment or not.

Obama had said the following upon landing into that question (from his beloved wife-Michelle):

“There are a lot of ways to answer that. But here’s one thing I know for sure: the day I raise my hand to take that oath of office as president of the United States…the world will look at us differently, and millions of kids – black kids, Hispanic kids – will look at themselves differently.”

You could argue whether that was his vision or not, but it was a necessary reason (even if not sufficient) to running for the president of a very diverse country were race could determine your chance of success.

In connection to the vision, I think one thing that is underscored throughout the book with many real-life examples, is that politics and campaigns are only means towards a certain destinations.

“…Politics as a calling; in campaigns as an opportunity to forge the future we imagine; in government as an instrument for that progress.” p.8

“We had run the race we hoped to wage, appealing to the best in people by describing what politics could be. We had defied the cynics and beaten the odds”. p.146

“ We are masters of our future, and politics is the means by which we shape it ” – Kennedy, p. 3

Campaign Manager:

His/her overall role is to overseas the team and to ensure the sub teams are meeting their targets. He also:

–       Keeping staff up and focused

–       Deals with polls and press


This is one of the most crucial people in the campaigning team. A strategist deals with communication and polls. He is data driven. Some of his/her functions include:

–       Overseeing the development and execution of the campaign’s message

–       Brief the candidates for interviews, speeches, and debates

–       Meet with the press staff and field operatives to package messages

–       Fashion the television and radio ads

Without saying much, I will list a number of citations from the book that can help us understand the role of this person.

“Every race is different, but the protocol is the same: Understand fully the array of arguments that could be made for and against your candidate, test them in polling, and cull the two or three that are most meaningful and that will have the greatest impact on the targeted voters you need to win. Then weave those arguments into a larger, authentic narrative that communicates who your candidate is and why he or she is running. In the end, campaigns are always a choice. Why should a voter choose Candidate A over Candidate B? The winning campaign is generally the one that dictates the terms of that choice by defining what the race is about.” p. 74


–       Plan and prepare schedule of the candidate based on research and priorities

–       Persuade the candidate to follow the schedule

–       Map out tours

–       Organize and conduct regular scheduling meetings with leaders of sub teams

Body man:

This is a different person from a bodyguard. A body man is a campaign aide who is always alongside the candidate. He has to be sharp, bright, and of high thinking level so as to assist the candidate in taking notes and understanding the context and discussions. He/she has to also be decisive.


“In campaigns, the most discouraging thing is to be ignored by your opponents” p.241

 “Campaigns are always about momentum” p.253


–       TV ads

–       Press hits

–       Direct mail

–       Stories

–       Question as opportunities to burnish message

–       “Truly transformative presidents- never stopped campaigning or communicating their basic message or core values”


The strategist has to work with research sub teams to:

–       Probe every aspect of the opponent’s record

–       Ensure policies, speeches, and arguments made are evidence

–       Polling

–       Collection of information


–       Budgeting

–       Fund-raising

–       Available personnel

–       Scheduling

–       Regular polling

–       Active community on email, twitter and Facebook

–       Polling

–       Message development and maintenance


To run for any political office one needs to have a committed and unwavering support from his/her family. It starts with your partner or wife/husband, and children. It is also an added advantage for the wider family members to support you.

However, there is a caution here! In the book, although implicitly, it is clear that one has to be careful on how this works out. The family needs to be wise in its engagement with the team so as not to offend and cost the candidate’s relations with the rest of the team. It is important for the family to know that the focus of the team is get into the office and not person/personal gains.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from: Axelrod D., Believer: My Forty Years in Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2015) pp. 509

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