To discuss the latest goings-on in the presidential campaign, I called David Axelrod, the former chief political strategist to Barack Obama and currently a commentator on CNN. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Hillary Clinton’s debate strategy, Obama’s “visceral” dislike of Donald Trump, and CNN’s controversial year.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you think the Clinton campaign’s play-it-safe approach to this election is the right strategy?
David Axelrod: Well, I mean there is a kind of fundamental rule of politics that when your opponent is destroying themselves, don’t get in the way. Obviously, if Trump were to resuscitate himself, that might necessitate a different strategy, though she is out there, certainly trying to stay on the offense. While I do think they have been kind of hanging back and allowing Trump the stage to himself in some ways, to act out, they have thrown some logs on the fire here and there.
What would you say the smartest and least smart things the Clinton campaign has done are?
[Laughs]. Look, I think that what they have done is executed the fundamentals well or better—much better—than in 2008. The Iowa caucuses are a great example. They didn’t have a very well-conceived strategy or well-developed organization for Iowa. This time they did, and they executed well, and this was why they were able to win what was a close contest there. Organizationally they are better. I think that was also reflected in the conventions. I have been to 10 Democratic conventions, and I was somewhat responsible for two of them. And I have to say I have never seen a better conceived or executed convention than the one they pulled off in Philly. The basic blocking and tackling they have done well.
Well, look, I think that the early reaction to Bernie Sanders—the famous rally in New Hampshire where they exhorted young women to fall in line and so on—that was a mistake that sticks out in my mind. When you are in a presidential campaign there are certain things you can plan. And on the planning things, they have done very, very well. There are things that require spontaneous decisions—or if not spontaneous, then quick decisions and reactions to breaking events. And some of that relies on the candidate’s performance. And on those sometimes they have done less well. The email saga—you could argue after a while that you should be able to plan on that.
Planning for scandals should maybe be baked into the cake with the Clintons.
Right, but I mean—you can’t give them high grades on their execution on that score.
To what degree has the Clinton campaign adopted your turnout operation?
Oh, I don’t think there is any question. I think one of the reasons that they should feel reasonably confident is that they have—from what I can see—embraced and built on the kind of Moneyball approach to organization that we pioneered in the Obama campaign. It really started with Howard Dean, but the Obama campaign is what took data to a different level and married big data with various elements of the campaign and old-style organizing.
At the same time, Trump is going to have less of a turnout operation than any candidate in memory. Do you have a sense of how big a Clinton advantage that is?
It is 1 to 3 percent I would say, in some of these states. In most states that is not going to make a difference, but in battleground states … when you look at a state like North Carolina, that could be very meaningful.
One to 3 percent is a lot. So you think if they go in tied on Election Day, she can win by a couple points?
Right. Message can get you way down the field, but if you have no kicking team, and you need a field goal, that’s a problem.
Trump doesn’t have that, and he will pay a price for that.
You had a role in prepping Hillary for her 2000 debate with Rick Lazio. What would you tell her about debating Trump?
I think it is a really fascinating question because he is not a conventional debate opponent, as we’ve seen. I think one of the interesting questions—and I don’t know the answer to this—is who do you have play Trump? In 2008, when we were working with Joe Biden, we asked Jennifer Granholm to play Sarah Palin. We were all kind of blown away by her portrayal of Sarah Palin, because we thought, This can’t be right. And she just channeled it. So when Biden got on the stage he knew what to expect. And believe me, during the prep he would crack up. He would be completely thrown off his game by Jennifer’s antics.
Maybe they should get an actor for Trump.
I think it’s a big issue. The goal of debate prep is to as closely as possible simulate every condition that that candidate is going to see, so that when the candidate gets on the stage, nothing is unfamiliar to them, and the parries of the other opponent are familiar.
If he attacks her in personal terms, by calling her names or bringing up say, Monica Lewinsky, how would you advise her to respond?
These things work on two levels. On one level people are watching because they care about their own lives, but on another level they are watching because they want to see how a candidate handles pressure, provocation, and so on. I don’t think you want to go full Dukakis and be disengaged when a guy is making brutally personal attacks. I think you have to respond in some way and engage in some way. But you also have to do it in control. You want to respond in a way that gives people confidence in you as a potential president handling those kinds of provocations. Trump’s problem is that he is like a bull in a china shop. I am combining metaphors, but he chases every red flag and ends up breaking the china.
Have you talked to Obama about how he sees the connection between this race and his legacy?
Oh, I mean he hasn’t been coy about it. Hillary Clinton will chart her own course, but it will be a progressive course, and she will build on the progress that Obama has made. Trump would not, but I think his concerns about the race have become more profound just in watching the way Trump has conducted himself. My theory is that Trump in part is the nominee because he is in every way the antithesis of Barack Obama. In terms of style, substance …
Black man vs. racist.
Yeah, I mean in addition to his own legacy, he is concerned about whether the guy is equipped to deal with the job.
His dislike seems kind of visceral.
Yeah it is. It’s visceral, but it is not personal, and I think there is a distinction between the two. I think that he has contempt for the manipulations of race and the appeal to people’s resentment. That is something that is a hot button for Barack Obama. It deeply troubles him, no question.
What have your interactions, either on-set or off, been like with fellow CNN contributor Corey Lewandowski?
You know, I have had cordial—I haven’t had any real … I think I was on the set once with him in all the time he has been there. I understand that he is a charged personality, and I understand the history. My view, Isaac, is that I deal with him as a guy who has been on the battlefield, who has been in the arena, and is in that sense a practitioner, and I deal with him on that level. And I will say this: I have had ups and downs in my career. I obviously operated a different way than he does, but I had ups and downs in my career. I know what it is like to be going 100 mph and then all of a sudden being thrown off the carousel. So in that sense I have some sympathy for him.
“You shouldn’t get on a racist carousel” might be the lesson of that.
There’s no question that it is not the carousel I would be on.
What have you made of the criticism of CNN during this election, which has been castigated for hiring too many partisans and hacks?
Well, you know, my personal experience has been that they have given me a forum to share my expertise on this process and to comment freely, and I am grateful for that. Their notion is that if you put people on the air who represent the different campaigns and different elements of the parties and so on, you will get a sense of where the candidates and campaigns are coming from. I know that’s not been well-received by some of the critics, but an awful lot of people have been watching CNN for some reason.
I think [CNN head Jeff] Zucker has built a really strong cadre of reporters there, and there are some really good journalists there who are doing really good work, and I think that is another reason why people watch.
I can’t let you go without asking why those political panels have so many people on them. There are like 40 people per panel.
[Laughs] Ummm, well there are a lot of seats. You’ve got to fill them. Look, I am not a producer of these shows. But again, I hear people disparage—it’s sort of like Donald Trump saying, “Nobody watches CNN” or “Nobody watches Morning Joe because they are so this, that, and so on.” But then he reacts to everything that has been said on the air. Clearly he is watching. People ask me about these panels, like Why are you on these panels? Why are these panels so large? How do they know the panels are so large? They seem to know everything that is going on on them. For some reason they are watching.