Home Business & Finance Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy
California: The Great Exception?
Whitaker and Baxter’s work on behalf of the AMA showed that professional campaign management, first perfected in California, could be used effectively on the national stage. Yet it was not until the 1970s that political consulting spread fully throughout the country.
What, then, set Whitaker and Baxter apart? What explains the rise of Campaigns, Inc.? Without ascribing to a crude California exceptional- ism, the Golden State did provide a rather conducive environment for the rise of a professional political class, as several astute observers have noted.118 Understanding these unique features of California politics not only sheds light on the rise of political consulting but also illuminates a broader transformation underway in the style and substance of American politics.
First and foremost, there was an abundance of political work in California. Whitaker and Baxter fully capitalized on these opportunities, particularly the many ballot initiatives that regularly came before California voters. Between their first campaign together in 1933 and the election of Goodwin Knight in 1954 (arguably the zenith of Whitaker and Baxter’s political influence), Campaigns, Inc. handled nearly half of all ballot measures in California, twenty-nine in all. Combined with candidate races and issue advocacy campaigns, Whitaker and Baxter secured a steady stream of clients that enabled them to overcome the feast-or-famine nature of political work.119 Direct legislation also gave professional campaign managers like Whitaker and Baxter the opportunity to perfect their craft. Unlike candidate races, ballot measures afforded an extraordinary degree of control over the contours of a campaign. Issue framing, media strategy, and even fundraising all came under the direction of Campaigns, Inc. Moreover, ballot initiatives generally avoided the risk of scandal or unscripted moments that often accompanied electoral campaigns. As one California consultant put it, “I would much rather have a nice, clean proposition than a candidate anytime ... no proposition ever made an ass of itself on national television.”120 Ballot initiatives enabled consultants to conduct campaigns largely as they saw fit and without the approval of a candidate or his circle of close supporters.
Another distinctive feature of California politics was the weakness of party organizations and the geographic scale of statewide races. These factors combined to encourage the early development, and dependence on, media-intensive campaigns using newspapers, radio, and direct mail to reach loosely organized voters dispersed across the state. In particular, California served as a testing ground for the use of television in political communication. Like the advent of radio in the
1930s, television prompted a series of adjustments in campaign practices. During Goodwin Knight’s 1954 race for governor, Whitaker and Baxter asked one of their associates to research the value of television as a campaign medium. His conclusion, based on media surveys, audience measurement studies, and interviews with station managers and advertising representatives, was that television held great promise as a way to project “the candidate’s personal characteristics and personality ... into the living rooms of the voters.”121 Television, in other words, was an ideal medium for candidate-focused campaigns, but it competed with other demands on the attention of the audience. Consequently, to be effective television required high-frequency advertising to reach the voter. In the Knight campaign for governor, Whitaker and Baxter invested heavily in TV advertising, running a total of 1,329 one-minute spots on each of California’s twenty-eight stations.122
Mass communication, including television, did not come cheaply. In fact, an important element of Whitaker and Baxter’s success was the large sums of money they controlled through the conduct of media-intensive campaigns. Earl Warren’s successful 1942 campaign for governor cost in excess of $1 million; Whitaker and Baxter’s budget for Goodwin Knight’s 1954 primary race alone was $600,000. Ballot initiatives were expensive as well. A single mailing to each of California’s 6 million registered voters might cost $360,000, while an effective campaign for one of the lesser statewide campaigns might cost upwards of $300,000.123 The high cost of California campaigns enabled Whitaker and Baxter to occupy a critical position between their clients and various media outlets in search of advertising revenue. As a result, Whitaker and Baxter became the conduit through which powerful interests sought influence in California politics.
The cost of campaigns points to a third important feature of California politics: the existence of a wealthy business community willing to engage in political action to promote and defend its economic interests. In mid-century California, electoral politics became a vital instrument of business influence. Although traditional forms of lobbying continued, various business groups depended on the ballot box to defeat direct legislation that threatened their interests or to elect candidates friendly to their cause. Understanding this, Whitaker and Baxter became adept at organizing campaigns on behalf of trade associations or industry groups, using the fear of an encroaching state to secure the financial backing necessary to spread their message about the dangers of a government unchecked. Whitaker and Baxter’s approach, especially the heavy emphasis on media, likely appealed a great deal to their clients, many of whom had grown accustomed to marketing and advertising techniques as an essential component of modern business methods. This made it easier for Whitaker and Baxter to convince their clients that a carefully planned political campaign offered a better return on investment than indiscriminately showering elected officials with cash and favors.
Together, the preponderance of direct legislation, media-intensive campaigns, and an array of politically active business interests made it possible to earn a great deal of money in California politics. In fact, Whitaker and Baxter were not the only ones to reap such rewards, even if they were the first to realize its possibilities. In Southern California, Herbert Baus, a former publicity director for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, formed his own consulting shop in 1946. Recalling his start in the business, Baus remarked how an associate told him, “There’s a lot of gold out there in political campaigns,” referring in particular to Whitaker and Baxter’s success up north. Several years later, Baus joined with William Ross, the owner of a small advertising business, to form Baus and Ross Campaigns.124 Like Whitaker and Baxter, Baus and Ross supplemented even-year elections with off-year mayoral races, city council elections, and other local political campaigns. In fact, there was enough business in California, and the politics sufficiently distinct, that the two firms effectively split the state in two: Baus and Ross handled the southland while Campaigns, Inc. managed affairs up north. On occasion, the two firms worked together, dividing responsibilities for statewide campaigns as they did for Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign.125 However, the campaign business was not always so amicable.126 William Ross recalled that after working a few campaigns with Whitaker and Baxter, “they began to fear us, and we went our separate ways.”127 California may have been a land rich in opportunities, but these early consultants were keen to defend their slice of the pie.
In other words, a market for political services developed earlier and to a greater degree in California than in other parts of the country. Alongside full-service firms like Campaigns, Inc., the state also supported several small polling firms, as well as a lucrative business that specialized in acquiring and certifying signatures for ballot initiatives.128 Moreover, the success of firms like Campaigns, Inc. attracted others seeking a fortune in politics. In the 1960s, the duo of Stuart Spencer and William Roberts achieved prominence for their work on behalf of Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 California primary and their management of Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign for governor in 1966. As Spencer put it, “Bill [Roberts] and I decided that we’d watch Whitaker and Baxter [and] we’d watch Baus and Ross. ... [W]e assumed those guys made money and we thought that’s a much better way to go into politics.”129 The financial rewards notwithstanding, early consultants were not simply political mercenaries lacking in partisan commitment. According to William Roberts, “We stayed with Republican campaigns because that was what we believed.” Yet Roberts also acknowledged that “you can’t be a political whore to the extent that you go both ways [working for both parties]. If you do, who trusts you?”130 Ideological consistency was good politics and good business.
The partisan nature of political work meant that even in California the opportunities to make a living depended on what side of the street you worked. Before the 1960s, political consulting flourished more on the political right than on the left. With few exceptions, the leading consulting firms like Campaigns, Inc., Baus and Ross Campaigns, and Spencer-Roberts were all closely associated with Republican issues, interests, and candidates.131 Democratic-affiliated consultants such as Joe Cerrell became important figures in California politics after the 1958 election, when Pat Brown’s victory in the gubernatorial race that year ushered in a new era for California Democrats and, simultaneously, opened up opportunities for party operatives like Cerrell and others to create consulting businesses of their own.132
The Republican-tilting character of professional campaign management suggests that consulting grew out of a distinct political economy in California. Absent a formal party organization at the grass roots and with a powerful business community seeking to preserve its hold on state government, individual firms, local chambers of commerce, and trade and professional associations assumed an important role in political campaigns. In fact, business groups provided the earliest opportunities for professional campaign managers. Both Leone Baxter and
Herbert Baus began their careers managing publicity for local chambers of commerce before specializing in political campaigns. Baus used his connections promoting commercial development in Southern California to secure campaign work on bond issues and ballot initiatives that concerned the business community in Los Angeles.133 Much of Whitaker and Baxter’s work was on behalf of California business interests as well, whether it was stopping Upton Sinclair’s insurgent campaign in 1934, blocking ballot initiatives that would have weakened private utilities’ control over electricity, or promoting private insurance as an alternative to Governor Earl Warren’s health care plan. In sum, the booming postwar economy in California coupled with the organizational weakness of the Republican Party created ample amounts of political work largely managed outside of a regular party structure.
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