Advisers play unseen role in elections

Campaign advisers help shape candidate messages and raise funds.

Matt Herbert

In political campaigns, the brains of the operation aren’t always the candidates.

The invisible masterminds behind every campaign that determine its success are campaign advisers, who help develop strategic campaign messages, coach the candidates and create wide organizational structures for the campaign.

“A good campaign adviser is going to help you understand what you need, where to go to get it and how it should operate,” said Larry Jacobs, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs said. “A good campaign adviser is an organizational genius. … You need to put the pieces together of an effective and far-reaching organization.”

David Heller, president of Main Street Communications, a political consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., said one of the biggest difficulties for campaign advisers is crafting a message a candidate will approve. He said there are many influences to the candidate and campaign, including a candidate’s wife, friends and large contributors.

David Axelrod, the top campaign adviser in 2008 for President Barack Obama and friend for more than 20 years, said candidates don’t always take the adviser’s advice.

“The thing I like about [Obama] the most is that he listens to me so little,” Axelrod said. “I give him political advice but he is interested in doing what is best for the country, and he believes political capital is there to be spent to move the country forward.”

Axelrod also served as former President Bill Clinton’s top adviser and was appointed as Obama’s senior adviser when he took office. He left the White House in early 2011 to become the campaign’s communications director for Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Axelrod has been one of the top campaigners for Obama’s re-election bid, appearing on multiple talk shows and news programs. He was in Minnesota on Tuesday campaigning and meeting with volunteers.

Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff and a top campaign strategist for Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential races, has also been credited with successful campaign advising and influence within the Republican Party.

Although many top campaign advisers are in the public eye communicating the candidate’s message, Heller said they hold less authority in the campaign.

“The more somebody is on television and in the media, the less influence they have,” Heller said. “They’re spending more time on television than with the campaign.”

Heller said because of more media involvement, the role of campaign advisers has changed. He said many campaigns have multiple advisers in different areas of the process.

Jacobs agreed that there have been many campaign changes in the past few decades that have required advisers to shift focus.

“The strategies and tactics have become much more sophisticated,” Jacobs said. “There’s a much higher level of competitiveness and the kind of threshold of hard-hitting personal attacks that has been exceeded many times. You look at what used to shock, and it looks like kid’s play today.”

Although Rove isn’t a large player in many races today, he’s still a factor in the political process.

Rove created a political action committee, American Crossroads, which has been raising money in an effort to defeat Democrats in the November elections. After the 2010 Citizens United case in the U.S. Supreme Court, donations to political action committees aren’t limited in the amount a person can donate to it. Direct donations to candidates are limited by law.

Although both parties have political action committees in their favor, Rove’s group is one of the larger political action committees in terms of fundraising.

Heller said the unlimited money third-party influences can bring in make it more difficult for campaign advisers to control a candidate’s messages.

American Crossroads raised $51 million in 2011, according to the Associated Press.

The money American Crossroads has raised has worried some Democrats, including Axelrod.

“I know a lot has been made of the fact that the president is going to raise a lot of money, and he has raised a lot of money,” Axelrod said, “but when you look at what’s going on, on the other side — Karl Rove has an organization that has raised $100 million dollars already to run negative ads against the president and Democratic candidates.”

Jacobs said forces of advisers, such as Rove and Axelrod, bring in a lot of money.

“Campaign finances itself is kind of an industry,” Jacobs said. “There’s a certain set of techniques that both parties engage in. Both parties have similarities of how they go about things.”