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The Message Keeper

In 1992, a Chicago woman named Bettylu Saltzman met Barack Obama, who had graduated from Harvard Law School one year earlier and was now in her city leading a voter-registration drive called Project Vote. Saltzman, an heiress to a shopping-mall fortune who's long been active in Democratic politics, was volunteering for Bill Clinton's presidential bid when, one day, Obama dropped by the campaign's Chicago office to discuss Project Vote. Saltzman came away from the encounter very, very impressed. "It could have been because I was working in a presidential campaign that I was thinking this way," Saltzman recently recalled for me, "but, after meeting Barack, I told a number of people that I thought he'd be president some day, and he'd be our first black president."

One of the people Saltzman told was David Axelrod, whom she had first gotten to know while working on Paul Simon's victorious 1984 U.S. Senate campaign, which Axelrod, at the age of 29, had managed. Since then, Axelrod had gone on to become Saltzman's good friend (they have Chicago Bulls season tickets next to each other) and the preeminent Democratic political and media consultant in Chicago, having spearheaded Richard M. Daley's recent election as mayor. Intrigued, Axelrod soon set up a meeting with Obama. For him, it was little more than a favor to a friend and, possibly, a political scouting trip. But, for the 30-year-old Obama, who had come to Chicago with dreams of becoming mayor himself, it was a crucial encounter with the person who could help him achieve that ambition.

Initially, though, Obama failed to make the sort of impression on Axelrod that he had made on Saltzman. Although their meeting led to the two becoming friends who would socialize and play basketball together, Obama and Axelrod's relationship was more personal than political--with Axelrod always maintaining a professional distance from Obama during the early years of Obama's political career. To be sure, Obama used Axelrod as an informal sounding board when he ran for the state Senate and got Axelrod to host a fund-raiser for him when his district was redrawn to include Axelrod's downtown neighborhood. But, despite his best efforts, Obama was unable to convince Axelrod to take him on as a client. When he ran for Congress in 2000, trying to unseat Bobby Rush, Axelrod sat on the sidelines. Ostensibly, Axelrod took a pass because he didn't want his working for Obama to be construed as payback by Daley, whom Rush had unsuccessfully challenged for mayor the year before. But Chris Sautter, an Axelrod friend who wound up working as Obama's media consultant on that losing campaign, says, "I think David was also pretty down on Obama's chances." And, a few years later, when Obama first approached Axelrod about joining his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Axelrod demurred. Indeed, according to David Mendell's biography of Obama, Axelrod told Obama to forget about statewide office altogether. "If I were you," he advised, "I would wait until Daley retires and then look at a mayor's race."

But Obama kept courting Axelrod, because Axelrod had proven the master of the key to Obama's political future: He knew how to sell black candidates to white voters. It's a formula Axelrod developed working on a series of black mayoral candidates' campaigns in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Once Obama finally won him over, in 2002, Axelrod used it to elect Obama to the U.S. Senate. And now, with Axelrod serving as the Obama campaign's chief political and media strategist, that formula is poised to send the first African American to the White House. "It was always very important to Barack to have Axelrod in his corner," says Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Obama's and now a senior adviser to his campaign. "He thought Axelrod would bring just the right expertise to the equation."

His political consulting career may seem charmed, but Axelrod's life has been marked by tragedy. When he was 19 years old and a junior at the University of Chicago, his father, a New York City psychologist--"my best friend and hero, " as Axelrod once described him--committed suicide. Later, Axelrod experienced the other side of paternal despair, when his daughter Lauren suffered epileptic seizures that left her with irreversible brain damage. Later still, his wife Susan, who runs an organization that promotes epilepsy research, waged a harrowing but successful battle with breast cancer. "A lot of people who enter public life have some kind of difficult situation in their pasts--they come from broken homes, their fathers left, they're orphans--and they're looking for something in public life they didn't get in their personal lives," says one Axelrod friend. "Because David's experienced his own tragedies, there's just an empathetic quality and ability to commiserate with some of these folks and to channel their energy and message in constructive ways."

Axelrod began his career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, but, in 1984, he left journalism and, after his work on Simon's campaign, opened his own political and media consulting firm in Chicago. "There are some disadvantages to being in Chicago when you're competing for federal races with the inside-the-Beltway firms," says John Kupper, who's worked with Axelrod since 1988. "We ended up doing more non-federal races, like mayoral races. We made a virtue out of necessity." Of course, the racial demographics of America's cities also necessitated Axelrod working for an unusual number of African American candidates. "The fact is, in most major cities these days, the voting majority is minority," Kupper explains. "So, as we've gone along here and picked up mayoral races, a lot of the clients have been African Americans."

Unlike many consultants, who impose their own messages and buzzwords on candidates--so much so that their clients all begin to sound alike--Axelrod is known for crafting campaigns that are centered on, and uniquely suited to, his candidates' biographies. As a result, when the mustachioed, disheveled Axelrod goes on television to offer spin, he tends to sound like his clients. "Even in casual conversation, he begins adopting the tone and language of the candidate he's working with," says Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party who's worked alongside Axelrod on several campaigns. Or, as GOP consultant Mark McKinnon, who teamed up with Axelrod on a Houston mayoral race in 1991 back when McKinnon was a Democrat, put it to me: "David just does a Vulcan mind meld with his candidates." This ability to understand his clients has become one of Axelrod's greatest selling points. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack remembers interviewing Axelrod to work on his 1998 campaign. "His shirt was kind of untucked and his hair was a little bit windblown. He walked in and I said to myself, 'This guy kind of looks like me; if he looks like me, I bet he can sell me.'"

Even those politicians who look nothing like Axelrod believe he's able to relate to them. "There are very few people who happen to be white who are sensitive and willing to give their all and commit themselves to candidates of color," says Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit and one of the many black mayoral candidates who relied on Axelrod's services. "Some come in with a pejorative sense and treat the candidate in a pejorative way, and you don't have the full, committed respect that David has displayed."

In 1989, Axelrod served as the political and media strategist for Michael White, a black Ohio state senator, in his bid for mayor of Cleveland. As Cleveland was the first major U.S. city to elect a black mayor--Carl B. Stokes in 1967--White's campaign was hardly unprecedented. Indeed, White's opponent in the general election, the president of Cleveland's city council, George Forbes, was also black. Because he couldn't count on an overwhelming number of black votes, White needed to win a sizable share of whites. The hot-tempered Forbes ran an aggressively negative campaign, accusing White of being a "slum landlord" and of abusing his former wife. But Axelrod realized that the key for White was not responding to those attacks and reducing the campaign to a contest between two angry black men--even when White was understandably tempted to do so. "When you have someone beating your brains out, the human temptation is, 'I'm going to go out in the middle of the ring and pulverize this guy,'" White says. "David's advice was to avoid doing that. He was right, of course, but you're not always so logical when you're bleeding." In fact, the story of White's personal growth--in which he matured from a militant student leader at Ohio State University in the early '70s into a mild-mannered MPA who refused to mix it up with Forbes--became a centerpiece of his campaign. "I spent some time being mad," he would say. "But I channeled my anger into constructive change."

Axelrod believed the other crucial vehicle for winning his candidate the votes of Cleveland's white residents was what he's called "third-party authentication"--in other words, endorsements from respected individuals or institutions that whites put a lot of stock in. "David felt there almost had to be a permission structure set up for certain white voters to consider a black candidate," explains Ken Snyder, a Democratic consultant and Axelrod protégé . In Cleveland, that was the city's daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. Largely on the basis of The Plain Dealer's endorsement and his personal story, White went on to defeat Forbes with 81 percent of the vote in the city's white wards.

Ten years later, Axelrod went to work on John Street's campaign for Philadelphia mayor. The candidate whom Street most resembled was White's old opponent, Forbes. Like Forbes, Street was the president of the city council who was infamous for his temper: As a young councilman, he had once shoved a TV reporter and thrown water in someone's face. Street needed a significant share of the white vote to win the race. In order to get that, he'd need to erase white Philadelphians' image of him as a hothead. Axelrod's strategy for doing this centered on Street's TV ads--which took a thenunusual documentary approach. "David would sit there for hours literally conducting interviews with Street, with Street looking just slightly off-camera answering David's questions," recalls Snyder, who was Street's campaign spokesman. "Then David would go back to the studio. It was a really hard jigsaw puzzle to put together--Street would say something nine seconds long and you only have seven seconds left in the spot--but David thought it was worth the time and effort spent because it allowed for voters to make a gut-level connection with Street. ... It's hard to accept a stereotype about a person when he's in your living room talking to you and you see that he's a real living human being with a certain set of experiences you can relate to." Street wound up winning an achingly close race, with a final margin of victory of fewer than 8,000 votes (out of 425,000 cast).

In 2006, Axelrod faced what was at that point his biggest challenge in Deval Patrick's campaign for governor of Massachusetts. Unlike almost all of Axelrod's black mayoral clients, who were following in the footsteps of other black mayors in their respective cities, Patrick was running for an office no black politician in his state had ever reached before. Like most Axelrod campaigns, Patrick's focused more on the candidate's biography than policy: Patrick's most effective TV ad dwelled on his life story--"raised by a single mother," "worked his way up from poverty to Harvard Law"--while giving short shrift to, as it described them, Patrick's "honest ideas to lift our state." But, rather than try to downplay or defuse Patrick's race, Axelrod used it as part of his appeal to white voters, casting his bid to become Massachusetts's first black governor as an opportunity for voters to make history themselves. Rob Gray, a GOP consultant who helped run the campaign of Patrick's opponent, Kerry Healey, says: "Part of the Patrick campaign was challenging white voters who might feel somewhat guilfty about racial attitudes in the state and the country to exorcise that guilt by voting for the African American candidate. ... 'Making history' can be very motivational to people in terms of their voting behavior."

Around the time Axelrod was steering Patrick to victory in 2006, he was urging Obama to run for the White House in 2008. "David felt the time was right and the environment was right," says John Kupper. "You don't know if four or eight or twelve years down the line conditions will have changed and if they don't, whether there'll be a newer Obama." The self-described "keeper of the message" for Obama's presidential bid has taken the lessons he learned from his mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns and made them cohere into something that approaches a unified theory of how to elect a black candidate--emphasizing biography, using third-party authentication, attacking with an unconventional sideways approach, letting voters connect to the candidate by speaking to them directly in ads, and telling voters that supporting the black candidate puts them on the right side of history.

In the fall of 2007, pundits and Obama supporters, frustrated by what they perceived as a listless campaign, worried that Obama's run might be over before it had even really begun. They urged Obama to take the fight to Clinton in personal terms, but Obama refused. That didn't mean, however, that he didn't go negative on Clinton; rather, he went negative in a way that was subtle enough so as not to mark himself as angry. "I remember Obama would have this riff, where he was like, what we need is change, not old-style thinking; conviction, not triangulation," says former Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson. "And all the things we needed were him, all the things we didn't need were us. And yet he never said our name. It was brilliantly effective."

The week before Super Tuesday, caught in a delegate-by-delegate race against Clinton, Obama deployed perhaps the most powerful third-party authenticators in the Democratic Party, Ted and Caroline Kennedy. It wasn't the first time the scion of an iconic white Democratic family had been used by Axelrod on Obama's behalf. In his 2004 campaign for the Senate, Axelrod recognized how important it was for Obama to have the support of someone white Illinois voters trusted, and he had lined up Paul Simon to play that role. But, when Simon passed away after heart surgery, Axelrod enlisted Simon's daughter Sheila, a city councilwoman in Carbondale, instead; the ad Sheila Simon made, in which she said that Obama and her father were "cut from the same cloth," has been credited with helping to spark a 20-point leap in the polls for Obama. And, as the presidential primary season trudged along, female authenticators like Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano became his most familiar surrogates. Even the sea of diverse but mostly white faces standing behind Obama on risers at his campaign events--a tableau that is carefully arranged by Obama campaign aides--serves as a form of third-party authentication.

In early September, following the GOP convention and McCain's rise in the polls, the Obama campaign faced its most difficult juncture since it was urged to attack Hillary Clinton. Many Democrats were in a panic over Obama's refusal to match McCain attack for attack. But, like the White campaign in Cleveland that Axelrod ran, the Obama campaign took a different approach--responding instead with ads that tried to turn McCain's negative attacks against him by denouncing them as a distraction and dishonorable. "There are certain things we're not going to say in ads," explains John Del Cecato, a partner in Axelrod's firm who is a media adviser to Obama's campaign. "I think sometimes people don't understand our strategy: They think it's either go for the jugular or you're treating them with kid gloves. There is an in-between."

Again and again, the ads that the Obama campaign has unveiled at the race's most critical moments--on the eve of the Iowa caucus, in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown--have featured the candidate talking in an informal manner directly to the camera, much like John Street did in Philadelphia. By doing so, Obama has tried to show that he's relatable and reasonable--not the radical figure white voters may have read about on the Internet and nothing like their worst images of black politicians. The ads that have featured pictures of Obama as a child with his white mother and grandparents and footage of him as an adult easily interacting with white voters (Axelrod has had camera crews following Obama at virtually all of his public appearances since 2003) have only served to reinforce that message. At the same time, Obama, like Patrick, has used his race to project a message of hope and change for voters who may be receptive to such a pitch. Indeed, one reason he's been able to be so vague and general in his promise of change is because the color of his skin serves as a constant reminder of just how concrete, in one way at least, that change would be.

With Obama ahead in the polls, that message that favors biography over policy looks as if it may be enough to get him to the White House. But what about afterward? After all, the electoral successes Axelrod has brought to his black clients have not always been matched by governing successes, as the troubled tenures of Street in Philadelphia and now Patrick in Massachusetts have shown. In fact, Axelrod's friends say it's not uncommon for him to grow disillusioned with his clients once they take office. (According to one friend, Axelrod has even confessed that, had Obama not run for the White House, he would have left political consulting altogether.) Will a President Obama somehow be different? And, if so, will Axelrod be in any way responsible for that difference? He's said that he has no plans to work in an Obama White House and that he intends to remain in Chicago. If he's able to make good on Bettylu Saltzman's long-ago prediction, perhaps David Axelrod will feel his job is done.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic. 

This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.