Home Business & Finance Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy
The Consolidation of Control
the April 5, 1968, issue of Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report featured a ten-page article that described the growing prominence of professional consultants in American politics. Under a headline that read, “Campaign Management Grows into a National Industry,” the writers observed, “The future has never looked brighter for a relatively small—but growing—number of professional managers who specialize in running political campaigns.”1 The article described how a collection of “former public relations men, journalists, lobbyists, advertising specialists, radio and television men, data processing technicians, public opinion pollsters, lawyers, college teachers and ministers” conducted paid political work on behalf of candidates running for office.2
Two years later, the National Journal proclaimed 1970 to be “the year of the free-lance professional campaign director” as a growing number of candidates relied on consultants to provide a range of “sophisticated techniques,” including “computers, polling, media and pre-tested issues.”3 According to a National Journal survey of all thirty-four Senate races that year, “at least 45 separate consulting firms [were] active in management or in providing other services to the candidates.”4 A similar study by political scientist David Rosenbloom found approximately forty firms that specialized almost entirely in consulting services for political candidates, with as many as two hundred firms engaged at least partly in the “professional campaign management industry.”5
Rosenbloom published his findings in The Election Men (1973), which joined a number of other book-length treatments such as James Perry’s
The New Politics (1968) and Dan Nimmo’s The Political Persuaders (1970) in detailing the rise of a new professional class selling polls, television advertising, and other modern campaign tools to the highest bidder.6 This view of the consultant as a kind of political mercenary found its fullest expression in the work of journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who in 1982 described what he saw as a fundamental shift in American politics toward “the permanent campaign,” a world in which presidents relied on continuous polling and carefully crafted messages in the pursuit of their personal political agenda. “The permanent campaign,” Blumenthal wrote, “is the political ideology of our age.”7 Fueling this relentless search for popular support, Blumenthal argued, were legions of political consultants who had replaced the ward heelers and political bosses of the past to become “the new power within the political system.”8 Political scientist Larry Sabato offered a similar assessment, arguing, “There is no more significant change in the conduct of campaigns than the consultant’s recent rise to prominence if not preemi- nence.”9 Like Blumenthal, Sabato saw consultants as responsible for the “triumph of personality cults over party politics” as they exercised “unchecked and unrivaled power” in the conduct of political work.10
Although some of these early claims were overdrawn, scholars and journalists did correctly perceive that political consulting was growing into the business we recognize today. In part, this reflected efforts by the industry itself to cement its status as a profession. In 1967, three prominent consultants—Cliff White, Joe Napolitan, and Walter DeVries—met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to form the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) as a forum for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of techniques used in political campaigns. From an initial membership of fewer than forty, the organization boasted more than 800 members just twenty years later.11 Meanwhile, Neil Fabricant, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, joined with Princeton political scientist Stanley Kelley to establish the Graduate School of Political Management at the City University of New York in 1987.12 The purpose of the new program was to provide specialized training and credentials for the growing ranks of consultants.
These professional trappings added stature to an industry that was already much larger than either the membership of the AAPC or those with a degree in political management might suggest. DeVries estimated in 1989 that 12,000 people earned part or most of their living from campaign consulting.13 Marking its ten-year anniversary in 1990 as “the magazine for the political professional,” the trade publication Campaigns & Elections listed thousands of firms in its “Political Pages,” a directory of services that ran over 128 pages of print and included 22 pages of general consultants alone.14 Meanwhile, the profession was penetrating further into the political system. Rosenbloom’s survey of consulting firms suggests that around 20 percent of contested House races in 1970 hired a consultant or professional management firm.15 A 1978 survey of political campaigns found that approximately half of the candidates for the House of Representatives hired a consultant or pollster.16 By 1992, according to political scientist Stephen Medvic, almost two-thirds of House candidates employed at least one consultant in their campaign. The figure was even higher among incumbents: 85 percent of candidates seeking re-election in 1992 hired a political consultant.17
What explains this growth? How did the conduct of political work become the successful business of politics we recognize today? To many observers writing in the 1970s, the growth of consulting was a product of two principal factors, the decline of traditional party organizations and advances in technology. For instance, the writers at Congressional Quarterly speculated that campaign consultants flourished where party organizations appeared weakest: “The most important single condition which forces candidates to look to the professionals for help is the absence of a strong and continuing party organization.”18 This pattern seemed to be borne out by the early development of campaign professionals like Whitaker and Baxter in states like California. Similarly, the spread of new technology sparked demand for “highly trained specialists [who] are needed to prepare and analyze public opinion polls, to run sophisticated advertising campaigns and to translate the results of data processing into useful political knowledge.”19
Although partly correct, these assessments suggest a degree of inevitability that does not square with the evolution of political work over the course of the twentieth century. As described in earlier chapters, publicity experts, public relations men, and pollsters similarly confronted a mix of technological developments and changing political conditions as they plied their wares in the political realm. Whether it was the arrival of radio, the invention of polling, or the rise of television, new technologies created opportunities for experts (real or imagined) to sell their services. Similarly, earlier generations of would-be consultants exploited political developments like the rise of the presidential preference primary, the growing power and prominence of the executive branch, or the unique features of politics in states like California to claim that they alone possessed the requisite skills to secure the support of a large and diverse electorate. Observers writing in the 1970s may have accurately described consultants as the new power behind the throne, but their rise was neither automatic nor predestined. Instead, innovations in technique and assertions of professional status made possible the full-blown business of politics we recognize today.
In other words, the growth of political consulting during the 1970s and 1980s represents the culmination of a decades-long process rather than the emergence of a new phenomenon. The marriage of polling and media first imagined in the 1930s and 1940s influenced the conduct of campaigns in a powerful way. With a few important exceptions, however, many early practitioners found it difficult to earn a living from political work. Television provided important new opportunities in this regard, but it also invited competing sources of expertise and advice such as advertising agencies and public relations firms. Unable to square the partisan nature of political work with their larger commercial interests, many ad agencies turned away from campaigns, opening the door for consultants to consolidate control over a growing business of politics.
However, some things did change in the 1970s. Building on earlier innovations, consultants developed a pricing structure and specialized in a range of services that provided more reliable and more lucrative sources of income. Consultants also exploited low-cost computing, video production, and cheap long-distance telephone service to lower their costs. These developments made it easier to earn a living from political work even as it quickened the pace of campaigns and ushered in a more personalized style of political communication. Most important of all, the passage of campaign finance reform in the wake of the Watergate scandal forced political campaigns to account for every dollar spent, prohibiting certain kinds of expenditures and loose accounting practices. Under the new rules, political consulting became a legitimate campaign expense and a legal way to spend money, helping the industry grow into a critical intermediary linking candidates, political parties, and the various donors who financed capital-intensive campaigns.
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