Five Things David Axelrod Taught Me About the 2016 Primaries

Axelrod image

By serendipitously picking this book up right smack as the 2016 primary season got underway in early January, I learned a ton.

LONDON – I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction. I have a particular allergy to popular books about politics – especially biographies and auto-biographies – as I tend to find them hagiographic in the first instance and self-congratulatory in the second.

So when my 84-year-old mother – who *does* read everything – suggested that I read Believer by political consultant and strategist David Axelrod – I was dubious. A book entitled Believer, written by one of the chief architects of President Obama’s two successful White House campaigns? I didn’t think I’d learn very much I didn’t already know and – as someone whose literary tastes tend to run to the dark and dysfunctional – I was quite sure that I’d find it far too uplifting.

I was wrong. It is uplifting. But it’s also worth reading. And by serendipitously picking this book up right smack as the 2016 primary season got underway in early January, I actually learned a ton.

Here are five things David Axelrod taught me about the 2016 primaries:

1. Donald Trump’s surge was to be expected. Much has been made of Donald Trump’s unforeseen political success during the current primary season. It’s something none of the punditry predicted. But as Axelrod notes in his book – a point he reprised in a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “The Obama Theory of Trump“- everyone, including him, should have predicted this. And that’s because, to paraphrase “Axe,” open-seat presidential elections are shaped by first and foremost by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Rather than look for a duplicate of the what they already have, he argues, voters tend to look for candidates whose personal qualities compensate for perceived weaknesses in the incumbent. According to this theory, Obama’s notoriously cool and measured political style was seen as a corrective to what many perceived as the hasty and rash decision-making of George W. Bush. Equally, according to this theory, Donald Trump’s take-no-prisoners style, particularly with respect to foreign policy and immigration, is the antithesis of the more deliberative and diplomatic style attributed to the sitting President. It’s too soon to tell if this theory will ultimately dictate the Republican nominee for President. But it certainly gave me something new to chew on as I watch the races unfold from afar.

2. Sarah Palin’s legacy was her anger. One of the joys of reading Believer is that it enables you to relive pivotal moments in the 2008 presidential campaign which you’d more or less forgotten but which truly stopped traffic in the moment. One of those was the day John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate. It was the moment when – as Axelrod captures it so succinctly – an entire nation responded collectively with: “Who?” Axelrod talks about the initial excitement around the fiery Alaskan vice presidential candidate and self-styled “hockey mom.” He doesn’t spend too much time on her in the book, as her political star – and McCain’s – rose and then fell rather quickly that year. What he does capture, however, was Palin’s uncanny ability to stir up the anger of McCain supporters towards things like big government, higher taxes and gun control. This opinion is echoed by one of John McCain’s own political advisers, who notes that Palin’s legacy lies “in her innate ability to wrap herself in the anger that those voters felt.” And it is precisely that anger which Donald Trump has so successfully tapped into to fuel his own campaign in 2016.

3. Surprises can shape electoral outcomes.  Axelrod notes that there are a few predictable sign posts in every presidential campaign which you know are coming and can get ready for: the selection of the vice presidential debate, the convention and the candidate debates. But elections are also heavily influenced by the things you can’t plan for. In 2008, it was the financial crisis and subsequent collapse of the financial services firm, Lehman Brothers. In 2016, it may well shape up to be the abrupt death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which has the potential to profoundly affect the race for President, no matter who the candidates are.

4. Hillary is a formidable candidate. In the Democratic primary, much has been made about the unexpected popularity of 74-year-old Senator Bernie Sanders as he seeks to unsettle front-runner Hillary Clinton. That story is far from over. However it resolves, Axelrod – who played a key role in shaping the successful campaign which unseated Hillary as the front-runner in 2008 – is adamant that no one should underestimate her power as a candidate: “Hillary was as game, smart and experienced an opponent as Barack could draw, and she had pushed him in ways that made him a much better candidate.”

5. It’s all about the delegates. This was my main takeaway from this book. Tempting as it is to ride the ups and downs of each and every primary or caucus – from Iowa to New Hampshire to Nevada, South Carolina and beyond – the thing to pay attention to is not who’s up or who’s down on any given day, but how many delegates they have. Obama’s team never lost sight of this fact. So even when they lost a key state, they kept their eyes on the delegate count as they sought the big prize.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at

Image via YouTube screen grab

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