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Home arrow Business & Finance arrow Building a business of politics the rise of political consulting and the transformation of American democracy

The Transformation of Political Work

By the 1980s, consultants had become key actors in the political process thanks to a series of innovations and adaptations that addressed the uncertain nature of political work. Consultants diversified their client base to include advocacy groups, labor unions, and corporations. Consultants also exploited low-cost technology and specialized in products and services that contributed most to their bottom line. Finally, campaign finance reform, for all its limitations, allowed consultants to occupy a profitable niche in the political system by serving as the principal legal way to spend money in campaigns. With these developments, consultants consolidated their control over the conduct of political work. By the 1980s, in fact, hiring a consultant itself became a mark of a professional campaign. In a kind of circular logic, candidates hired consultants to signal their viability to potential donors, thereby attracting the financial contributions needed to pay for the very services that only consultants could provide (and candidates believed were necessary to win).105

As they became part of the landscape of American politics, consultants changed the very terrain upon which they worked. One mark of this transformation is the speed and intensity of political campaigns. Starting in the 1970s, a combination of technological developments, economic incentives, and political opportunities created a fast-paced political style. Whereas Whitaker and Baxter took weeks and even months to plan and execute a campaign, consultants working in the 1970s and 1980s could field a survey, analyze the results, and then produce a new television advertisement in a matter of days. “The intensity of campaigns ... [has] increased just enormously, and it’s at every level,” Wally Clinton observed. “The media people ... buy more time on television. The pollsters spend more time in the field. The mail people send more letters. We make more phone calls. ... The speed of the response has to be immediate. You have to be prepared to respond within minutes.”106 Speed was good for business, of course, because it increased the flow of products and services consultants could sell to their clients.

In the early years of polling a campaign might purchase a benchmark study conducted during the primary followed by one or two additional surveys over the course of the campaign. With low-cost telephone interviews, however, it became possible to conduct tracking polls that examined movements in voter opinion over time using a rolling sample of 200 to 300 respondents contacted each night.107 With quicker turnaround times, pollsters could measure sudden changes in the campaign, testing, for example, how voters responded to a new advertisement or whether a candidate’s performance in a debate had any measurable effect on opinion. Rather than simply provide a snapshot of the race at a single moment in time, pollsters could create a kind of “moving picture” that tracked the daily ups and downs of the campaign. Lance Tarrance likened his job to that of a doctor reading an EKG, watchful for any sign of “erosion in your voter base.”108 The advent of CATI systems sped up the process even further. As Peter Hart recalled, CATI allowed his team to “finish [a survey] at 10:00 at night, and ... then sit down and talk to the candidate by phone” an hour later.109 The capacity to conduct more polls more frequently meant the pollster’s job interpreting results became an ongoing service rather than a periodic one. As Vince Breglio put it, “The survey researcher becomes a more intimate part of the decision-making apparatus of the campaign structure.”110

Similarly, it was much faster to produce a commercial on video than on film, enabling consultants to increase their output considerably. Media consultant Bob Goodman described how when he started his career in the 1960s, it took weeks to film, process, and print a political advertisement before it aired on television. Because of the long lead time associated with film, Goodman could create only a handful of ads for a campaign. In fact, his work often ended right after Labor Day: “We’d sit back and say, I wonder what’s going to happen in November.” Videotape “changed the whole business overnight,” Goodman recalled.111 With the capacity to shoot, edit, and air a new commercial in a matter of days or even hours, a skilled consultant could produce a continuous stream of ads throughout the campaign. Low-cost videotape even allowed media consultants to create multiple ads and then test public responses to different campaign messages using polls and focus groups.112 Much like polling, the job of the media consultant became one of responding to the unexpected events and changing conditions of the race. Expenditures on political advertising increased accordingly. Between 1972 and 1992, television spending on behalf of political candidates increased in real terms by 150 percent, more than double the rate of growth in both total campaign spending and commercial TV ad revenues over the same period.113 In addition to more media-intensive campaigns, video altered the very style of political communication, as consultants moved away from the slick production values of commercial advertising in favor of quick “sound bites” and “man-on-the-street” interviews. Videotape was the ideal medium in this regard not only because it was fast and cheap but also because handheld camera work emulated the immediacy voters had grown accustomed to from watching their local news.114

The rapid-fire character of political campaigns also reflected a search, frenzied at times, for a more personalized, even intimate, connection with voters. Polling, media, and direct mail offered high returns in part because they were in high demand by parties, interest groups, and candidates in need of money and votes. However, this demand reflected a promise, only partly fulfilled, that a political consultant could provide a more fine-grained portrait of the electorate and a more personal connection with the voter than was previously the case. Polling, for example, became less about the discovery of general trends in opinion and more about detecting small shifts in the allegiance of discrete groups.115 One of the virtues of low-cost telephone interviews, in fact, was that it enabled pollsters to hone in on a specific demographic or group of voters as needed.116 Similarly, media strategy focused less on the presentation of the candidate to a broad audience and more on the identification of specific issues or concerns that could bring strategic segments of voters to the polls (or keep them at home). Through the control of political work, consultants became the candidate’s principal connection to the people.

The search for what motivated the individual to participate in politics was perhaps most advanced in the area of direct mail. The value of constructing an extensive voter database was that it could be used to craft a personal appeal aimed at a very specific segment of the electorate. As Matt Reese described the advantages of data-driven targeting, “I’d know what kind of folks they are, and consequently I know how to approach them when I send them mail, or call them on the phone. ... I could tell what they were thinking, and I could tell how they voted.”117 Even more than polling or media, direct mail could drill down to specific constituencies. Wally Clinton explained, “We can be more precise with our messages, we can identify demographically or geographically what messages work with certain segments of the electorate, and deliver complementary messages to those small segments of the electorate.”118 In addition to identifying which voters to target, direct mail consultants working in the 1970s used computers to generate personalized letters that created an appearance of individual attention. As consultant Bill Lacy told political scientist Larry Sabato in 1979, computerized mail services made it possible to create the impression of a personal connection using specific information about the recipient. “All of that’s computerized,” Lacy explained. “The computer . spews out letters that basically ... [make] a person think that he’s actually getting a personal letter from someone.”119 Although such techniques seem dated or even quaint by contemporary standards, advances in direct mail during the 1970s laid the groundwork for more sophisticated targeting weapons in the twenty-first century.120

More fundamentally, consultants altered the organizational ecology of American politics. Contemporary observers writing in the 1970s saw consultants as a cause of, or at least an accomplice in, the apparent decline of American political parties. In fact, the story is a more complicated one than that. Consultants did profit from the growing complexity and fragmentation of the American political system by giving voice to multiple actors and interests engaged in the political process. Joe Napolitan, for example, gained national notoriety for helping the multimillionaire Milton Shapp win the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania. With the help of Shapp’s considerable fortune, Napolitan positioned his candidate as an outsider man of the people running against the party machine. Although Shapp lost the general election, his candidacy seemed to herald the rise of a modern, media-savvy politician who, by employing the services of a professional consultant, could operate independently of party in the quest for office.121 And as we have seen, consultants profited from the expanding array of PACs, advocacy groups, and trade associations that became increasingly active in politics in the 1970s thanks in part to the rules governing independent political expenditures. Consultants contributed to these centrifugal tendencies in American politics by creating a market for products and services that served a myriad of causes and candidates.

However, consultants benefited from and depended on the continued relevance of parties in the American political system. Shapp’s famed victory in Pennsylvania illustrated, among other things, how consultants profited from a system in which candidates had to win a primary election to secure their party’s nomination. In fact, primaries were good for business. This was certainly the case at the presidential level after party reforms enacted in the 1970s changed the nominating process so that White House aspirants had to compete in statewide primaries in order to become their party’s standard-bearer. Similarly, the development of a two-party system in the post—Voting Rights Act South created new opportunities for consultants, especially those working on behalf of Republican candidates in newly contested primary and general election races.122 Moreover, as careful students of the American party system have pointed out, consultants frequently worked closely with state and particularly national party committees, helping to develop critical resources and capacities in areas such as fundraising, communication, and survey research.123 During the 1980 electoral cycle, for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee spent more than $7 million on fundraising, plus another $600,000 on consultants, surveys, and additional research.124 Consultants and political parties worked together as friends rather than foes, allies in the pursuit of partisan goals rather than adversaries in the political process.125

More than simply engaged in a search for profits, consultants sought out causes and candidates they believed in and were willing to devote their considerable energies to help win. This is what attracted consultants to politics in the first place: the excitement of the campaign and the opportunity to work on behalf of a broader set of goals, aspirations, and beliefs. As consultant Charlie Black put it, “Your philosophy kept you going.”126 Often, this lent a strong partisan motivation to consultants’ work.127 For instance, Bob O’Dell noted, “I was a strong Republican long before I was in the business.”128 Matt Reese put it more bluntly: “I don’t like Republicans, except for my mother [and] Abraham Lincoln.”129 In fact, many consultants had considerable experience working directly for political parties early in their career. Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell served as the executive director of the California Democratic Party in the years before he began his own firm in 1966.130 Matt Reese completed a stint with the Democratic National Committee after helping JFK win the White House in i960.131 Direct mail consultant Bob O’Dell worked as a summer intern for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee in 1963 and six years later became the executive director of the Republican National Finance Committee (the fundraising arm of the national party).132 Republican pollster Lance Tarrance started his career working for the Republican Party of Texas before moving to the Republican National Committee, where he became the director of research in 1968. When Tarrance started his own polling firm in 1977, one of his first clients was the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, which purchased ten surveys as part of its southern strategy for the 1978 midterms.133

Partisanship had economic benefits as well, serving as the bedrock upon which consultants could build the kind of “personal handholding operation” that was critical to their business.134 Because candidates were unlikely to trust a consultant who did not share the same political beliefs, much less vote for the same party, the vast majority of consultants identified as partisans and restricted themselves to working only for one party or the other. This had important consequences, both for the business of politics and for the character of political competition. Party affiliation granted consultants access to a pool of potential clients, including candidates for office, party committees, and allied advocacy groups. As a result, consultants became a crucial part of the connective tissue linking causes, candidates, and party committees in an extended partisan network.135 More broadly, consultants helped to define the character and content of partisan campaigns.136 Through their provision of products and services like polling, media, and direct mail, consultants selected issues, crafted messages, and targeted voters in ways that reinforced and reproduced partisan identities and allegiances. In doing so, consultants helped to create the very partisan context in which they worked.

Nevertheless, some consultants had a complicated and sometimes ambivalent relationship with political parties. Describing his relationship with party operatives in a 1979 interview, Doug Bailey described how “it’s not a conflict of interest as much as a conflict in roles.”137 According to Bailey, “The party apparatus is filled with people ... who believe that they already know how to run this guy’s campaign.” Consequently, party operatives “don’t want to admit that [a political consultant] can offer them anything or can really be of any help.”138 The result, Bailey observed, was a “begrudging respect” or even a “kind of jealousy” expressed on the part of party workers toward the consultant. “You sense it in every meeting,” Bailey added.139

These rivalries may have diminished with time, but the fact remained that most consultants worked for candidates first: partisan goals were secondary to helping your client win. This was because individual officeholders remained largely responsible for their own political fates, a condition magnified by the breakdown of the New Deal coalition and the breakthrough in African American voting rights that transformed the American party system in the late twentieth century. Political consulting rose amid the initial uncertainty of these political shifts, and the industry gained strength as a new era of partisan polarization and closely contested elections took shape. Indeed, the success of the consulting enterprise partly hinged on the heightened sense of insecurity felt by every incumbent or challenger for office, regardless of party. As Matt Reese put it, there is “nothing better than a scared, rich candidate.”140 His comment reflects the complex mix of motives and the complicated relationship, partly symbiotic and partly parasitic, between consultants and their clients. Consultants exploited opportunities for economic gain generated by the high stakes of elections for the winners and the losers, be they candidates for office, party leaders, or the various interests seeking influence through the financial contributions they made to political campaigns.

This mixture of political and pecuniary motives is what makes consulting so unique and also, perhaps, difficult for some observers to grasp completely. Political consulting is a hybrid activity that combines commercial imperatives with ideological and partisan motivations. It is precisely this ability to square political goals with economic realities that made consulting a successful enterprise after the 1970s. Consultants entered the business to make money, but they were not exactly the mercenary operatives early assessments made them out to be. Ray Strother put it best: “I’m a capitalist, [but] I’m a Democratic capitalist.”141 The remark points to the essentially partisan nature of political work, and it illustrates the old saw about those who are drawn to politics to do good, but stay in politics to do well.

 
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