PEORIA — Look for the leaders who got into politics in order to do something, not to be someone.
That bit of voting advice was one of many pieces of perspective — mixing idealism and practical campaign politics — that political consultant David Axelrod offered up to a crowd of students, staff and community members Thursday evening at Bradley University.
The consultant who helped elect Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate and then twice to the presidency shared his thoughts on a range of issues, including the nascent 2020 campaign and how and why students should get involved in public service, during a question-and-answer session hosted by Bradley's Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service and the Dirksen Congressional Center.
As for the fast-evolving campaign, Axelrod carefully sidestepped an opportunity to talk up a single Democratic candidate but also seemed to suggest that a fractured Democratic Party — or a third-party candidacy — made easier President Donald Trump's path to re-election.
He did say that he thought "young voters are going to be the decisive factor in 2020," pointing to close margins in a handful of states in 2016 where boosted turnout from motivated voters — as young voters were in 2008 — could've changed the outcome of the election.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination, Axelrod expressed worry it would be a costly victory.
"I think it's going to take maybe $150 million to get through the first four contests," he said.
Axelrod also acknowledged that every campaign for the presidency is different, and focuses on different issues. But he saw several parallels between the America of today and the nation when Obama first sought the presidency.
He felt that 12 years ago "people wanted to believe that we could be better and do better ... and there may be a market for that" in the next election as well. Axelrod argued that, then as now, the nation was riven with many splits, but that in both instances "I don't think this country wants to be divided."
And to students in the room, he offered some thoughts on how to get into public service.
"You do it by doing it," he said. "You find a cause or candidate or maybe it's a program that you're passionate about, and plow yourself into it."
Politics has to be about more than victory, he told the audience.
"It's not about whether the blue team wins or the red team wins. It's about 'What can you do to make our communities stronger, to help people live secure lives?'" Axelrod said. "... What you're fighting for is the opportunity to make that kind of difference."