Home Business & Finance Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy
If Jon Jonkel represented the future of American politics, the degree to which candidates hired paid experts or embraced new technologies like television varied considerably during the 1950s. At the national level, for example, the Republican Party had a fairly sophisticated communications operation by the mid-1950s, prompting Stanley Kelley to observe that the publicity arm of the Republican National Committee operated, in effect, like “commercial public relations agencies performing political functions.”22 The Democratic Party, in contrast, lacked the same in-house capacity, and party leaders encouraged candidates “to retain professional advertising and publicity experts” on their own.23
If both parties recognized the value of professional advice, Republicans were a bit more adept in meeting this new reality, a view supported by recent work showing how Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 commenced an active period of Republican party building.24
Things looked much different at the state and local levels. According to Kelley, an informal survey of state party chairmen revealed that in seventeen states “the use of public relations men in campaigns is increasing,” mostly in statewide races for the US Senate, governor, and the occasional presidential campaign.25 State and local races, on the other hand, remained largely amateur affairs. As an informant from Washington state put it, “Frankly, the kind of assistance given in most political campaigns, other than top level, are second rate practitioners picking up an odd dollar and usually contributing very little.”26 This suggests that a great deal of political work still rested in the hands of individuals whose professional claims were more of an aspiration than a reality.
We gain a more complete picture from political scientist Alexander Heard, whose landmark study of campaign finance, The Costs of Democracy (1960), offers key insights into broad changes in American politics during the 1950s.27 Working as a consultant to the Senate Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, Heard had access to thousands of pages of documents detailing political contributions and expenditures made during the 1952 and 1956 campaign cycles.28 Heard also gathered his own data on the changing character of political campaigns and the growing influence of professional staff to run them.
In 1957, for example, Heard surveyed members of the Public Relations Society of America, sending questionnaires to 200 firms around the country asking them about the extent of their involvement in political campaigns. Of the 130 firms that replied, 60 percent responded that they had conducted some kind of political work during the previous five years. Services ranged from purchasing advertising space or airtime to preparation of publicity material, fundraising, and general campaign strategy. A third of the firms reported that they offered complete campaign management services, as Whitaker and Baxter did in California.29 Heard also found that firms were active at all levels of government, from mayor all the way up to president of the United States. In fact, two-thirds of the campaigns that involved public relations firms took place at the state and local levels. Heard also found a great deal of regional variation: 70 percent of active firms worked in just seven states and the District of Columbia.30 In a separate survey of state party chairmen, Heard found that around one-third of state party committees employed a public relations firm at some point in 1956 or 1957.31 Advertising firms also found ample work in several states, working in thirteen states during the 1952 campaign cycle, where they accounted for 40 percent of disbursements by state and local committees.32
In discerning some pattern from these findings, Heard concluded that “public relations firms seem to play their most important organizational roles in states of weak party organization.” California was emblematic of this trend as its “lush, chaotic politics ... afforded enormous opportunities for anyone who could provide a sensible and economical way to run a political campaign.”33 However, Heard cautioned against the view that somehow professional campaign services and robust state party organizations were mutually exclusive. Instead, he found that “no wholesale displacement of party functionaries has occurred sufficient to convert political campaigns into contests between advertising firms.”34 In fact, both Heard and Kelley found a number of state party committees that worked closely with public relations and advertising firms. In some places, in fact, the Republican Party used public relations firms to circumvent state campaign finance laws that banned corporate contributions to political candidates. According to one Republican state finance chairman, the party regularly used public relations firms on corporate retainer to provide services directly to GOP candidates. As Heard explained, this practice exploited a loophole in state campaign finance law by enabling public relations firms to “do political campaign work as part of their responsibility to their employer.”35 Rather than being antithetical to party organizations, political professionals provided a vital connection between parties, candidates, and allied groups—especially business interests.
However, it is important to remember that the use of professional services like media and polling was rather uneven and quite limited in the 1950s, especially compared with the present day. This was particularly the case for congressional campaigns, as illustrated by the results of a survey conducted in 1958 by University of Michigan political scientists Warren Miller and Donald Stokes.36 Although most House candidates reported using at least some radio and television in their campaign, only 13 percent considered it to be of primary importance in reaching voters. Polling was even less common. Only 40 percent of candidates used surveys at all, and less than 5 percent considered polls to be the chief way of finding out about district opinion.37 Overall, less than 10 percent of candidates were heavy users of polls, radio, or television, while more than a third of candidates ran for Congress with little or no polling or media at all.38 To put this in perspective, in the 2014 campaign more than 75 percent of House candidates spent at least $100,000 on media, polls, and direct mail; among incumbents running for re-election, more than 90 percent of candidates spent $100,000 or more on the services of professional consultants.39
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