Home Business & Finance Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy
A Business Takes Shape
changes in the character of American democracy placed a premium on the ability to solicit popular support, providing opportunities for those promoting their skills as a new kind of political professional. As aspirants for office took greater responsibility for their own political fortunes, candidates sought advice from experts who could help them communicate with voters. With the invention of radio and the accompanying advances in survey research, specialists in polling challenged the ward heelers and precinct workers as a valued source of political intelligence. And, with the growth of presidential power, those skilled in the use of media and crafted communication became key participants in building an energetic executive.
However, it remained difficult for the forerunners of the modern consulting industry to reap many financial rewards from the conduct of political work. Although the collaboration of Hadley Cantril and Gerard Lambert, pollster and media man, foreshadowed the lucrative business of politics that would eventually emerge, neither made any attempt to capitalize on their innovations. Emil Hurja similarly contributed to advances in presidential polling, but he retired from politics into relative obscurity. Elmo Roper dabbled in political polling, but it could not pay the bills for him either. Even such an enterprising figure as Edward Bernays found corporate public relations a much more lucrative enterprise. Motivated by personal political goals or a sense of civic duty, these early practitioners lived for politics more than they lived from it.1
In California, however, a true business of politics was taking shape. In 1933, Clement Whitaker joined forces with Leone Baxter to manage a campaign against a statewide ballot initiative. Following their success defeating the measure, the former journalist and director of a local chamber of commerce established Campaigns, Inc., the first dedicated political consulting firm in the United States. Over the next twenty-five years, the team of Whitaker and Baxter managed scores of campaigns on behalf of the state’s leading industries, interest groups, and candidates. Through their work, Whitaker and Baxter crafted evocative messages and served as an important conduit between their clients and the media, realizing to a degree previously unknown the opportunities and rewards of professional campaign management.
In some ways, California was an environment rich in opportunities to develop a business of politics. Progressive Era reforms left political parties organizationally weak. Cross-filing allowed candidates to run in primaries for either party, while a penchant for direct democracy placed numerous ballot initiatives regularly before the public. The sheer scale of the state, almost 800 miles from end to end, coupled with the extraordinary mobility of the population, meant candidates and campaigns in California leaned heavily on mass media to reach the voters. As the economy and population of California grew during World War II, conflicts emerged between the government in Sacramento and powerful business interests in the state. For Whitaker and Baxter, these corporate clients provided them with a steady flow of work aimed at limiting the scope of government regulations.
In fact, Whitaker and Baxter did more than create a lucrative business; they forged a new kind of interest group politics as well. In the capable hands of Whitaker and Baxter, business groups and trade associations used sophisticated campaign tools to defeat candidates, ballot measures, and legislative proposals that threatened their financial interests. Indeed, Whitaker and Baxter’s methods provided a powerful and effective means for business groups and professional associations to engage in political action to a much greater degree than was previously possible. Their discovery had national implications. After perfecting their model of political action in California, Whitaker and Baxter replicated their efforts at the national level as they led the American Medical Association campaign to defeat Harry Truman’s plans for national health insurance. California did offer distinct opportunities for a political consulting profession to take shape, but the Golden State also served as a laboratory for innovations in political practice that eventually spread throughout the country.2
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