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Business and Politics

The rise and decline of public relations and advertising firms in the conduct of political campaigns illustrates the gradual evolution of political work. Over the course of the twentieth century, a variety of techniques initially developed in the commercial realm made their way into politics as experts drawn from advertising and allied fields adapted their tools to the needs of parties and candidates. A combination of technological change and political circumstance created various opportunities for these early professionals to sell their wares.

Far from being a uniform process, professional opportunities for political work varied considerably during the 1950s and 1960s. With the rise of television, for example, advertising firms took on a prominent role in presidential campaigns. However, congressional candidates utilized professional services far less frequently or intensively. In some states, public relations and advertising firms worked closely with party committees; in other places, close ties between parties and political professionals were mostly lacking.

One other pattern deserves note. Through the end of the 1960s, Republicans appeared to utilize the services of political professionals more often than Democrats. In California, as described in the previous chapter, professional campaign services from the likes of Whitaker and Baxter and others initially flourished on the political right. Similarly, the work of Jon Jonkel in Maryland or Rosser Reeves on behalf of Eisenhower points to a Republican propensity to use public relations and advertising techniques more frequently (and more effectively) than Democrats in the conduct of campaigns. As historian David Greenberg observes, “For more than a generation ... Republicans and conservatives showed a greater comfort with using the sales methods of consumer capitalism in the service of electoral politics.”104

One reason for this, perhaps, is that Republican ties with corporate interests eased the adoption of business methods in political campaigns. This had a practical dimension, as when a public relations firm or ad agency on corporate retainer could work for a candidate as a way to circumvent state campaign finance laws that barred direct corporate support. Business interests used their existing commercial relationships with public relations or advertising firms to assist Republican candidates or the state party. More generally, it is possible that business leaders accustomed to using market research and advertising as an effective selling tool viewed polling and political media as a more effective and efficient use of campaign resources than the free-flowing money that fueled political machines. In other words, Republicans embraced a “businesslike” approach to politics more quickly than Democrats, who lacked the same kinds of corporate connections in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of relying on professional services, Democrats developed close ties with labor unions, emphasizing voter registration drives and grassroots mobilization efforts.105

These partisan differences disappeared in the 1970s as the modern political consulting industry finally took shape. One reason for this consolidation of the field was the partisan nature of political work. Advertising agencies in particular struggled to incorporate the occasional political campaign with their ongoing commercial responsibilities. Landing the quadrennial account of a presidential candidate may have brought a degree of prestige, but politics also imposed strains on the day-to-day workings of the firm. Specializing in political campaigns avoided this problem, and it enabled a new breed of political consultant to create two distinct markets for political work: one serving Republicans and the other Democrats. By the 1980s, the industry was so firmly established in American politics that most candidates, regardless of party, acquired the services of a political consultant.

 
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