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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


Innovation, Political Work, and Professional Control

Unlike in most commercial endeavors, there are few patents in politics. Instead, new techniques diffuse through the political system as consultants incorporate lessons from the last campaign. This ongoing innovation partly reflects the uncertainty of political competition. Even with advances in forecasting methods and reliable polls, the intentions of the voting public cannot be fully known until Election Day. Politics remains a speculative enterprise, especially in the midst of a close race, when it is difficult to know whether a particular tactic or strategy will prove to be the decisive factor that separates a candidate from victory or defeat. Even if many elections are decided by the broader political environment rather than the strategies and gambits of a single campaign, the uncertainty of not knowing who will win fuels the search for a more complete picture of the public and a more effective way to communicate the candidate’s message.1 This uncertainty extends to the realm of political work. In fact, because it is so difficult to isolate exactly which techniques were most effective in winning a race, there are rewards to be gained through speculation and innovation, regardless of the result. Winning may validate the wisdom of a new technique, but even in defeat a consultant can point to many factors beyond her control that explain why the client lost. In fact, losing may offer key lessons that spark subsequent invention.

Meanwhile, the number and frequency of elections, coupled with the free flow of political contributions, provide a market rich in opportunities for experiments in the use of novel campaign methods. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, in 2012 there were more than 3,800 candidates in 2,500 races for state and federal office who received at least $100,000 in campaign contributions (an additional 200 committees met the $100,000 threshold in state ballot initiatives).2 The sheer scope of electoral competition in the United States, especially the number of candidates with money to spend, provides fertile ground for consultants offering the newest or most effective tools that can win a competitive race. Indeed, the large number of well-funded potential clients explains why the business of politics is so much larger in the United States than in other democratic nations.3

The recent development of digital campaign tools illustrates how this mixture of uncertainty and opportunity fuels innovation and the continuing evolution of political work. Over the past fifteen years, the use of fundraising appeals through email, Internet advertisements, and sophisticated data analytics has become widespread in American campaigns. The story is now a familiar one. In 2004, Howard Dean’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination produced a major breakthrough in the use of the Internet to raise money, recruit volunteers, and mobilize supporters. Following his party’s bruising defeat in the 2004 election, Dean became the chair of the Democratic National Committee, bringing along key staff from his campaign who then built a sophisticated technology platform so the party could raise more money and target resources more effectively on behalf of Democratic candidates.4 Meanwhile, several other veterans of the Dean campaign established consulting firms that further developed the tools and techniques of digital campaigning. These pockets of expertise in and outside the party came together during the 2008 presidential race, helping a relatively unknown Barack Obama secure the nomination and then win the general election over John McCain. The development of digital tools continued during Obama’s first term through the creation of Organizing for America (OFA), which utilized an enormous database of email addresses collected during the campaign to mobilize support on behalf of the administration’s agenda.5 In 2012, OFA morphed back into a campaign entity (renamed Obama for America) and built an extensive digital operation that utilized sophisticated data analytics in order to “fuse the multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified profile.”6 The result was widely hailed as an enormously successful fundraising, targeting, and get-out-the-vote effort that leveraged “big data” in a new and highly effective manner. Election postmortems gave a good part of the credit for Obama’s re-election to the “nerds” who created the technology for a ground game that far surpassed what the Romney campaign achieved on Election Day.7

From a historical perspective, the arrival of data-driven campaigns resembles the early days of radio and television, when practitioners experimented with new technologies whose practical effects ran just ahead of their commercial value. Although Internet use is widespread in American politics, broadcast media still dwarf the amount of money allocated to online advertising and other digital tools. In the 2012 election, for instance, consulting firms specializing in digital services received only $318 million in campaign spending, compared with $2.6 billion collected by media consultants.8 Spending in the 2014 midterm elections paint a similar picture. The cost of web ads, software, and other technology totaled only $164 million, compared with the $1.2 billion spent on broadcast media.9 These figures suggest that consultants have yet to fully reap the commercial opportunities of digital tools. In 2012, the top media consulting firm, GMMB Inc., handled $435 million in campaign expenditures. By contrast, the top digital firm, Targeted Victory, was responsible for $112 million in spending.10 One reason for this gap may be that digital tools can provide campaigns with a cheaper and more efficient way to allocate resources, for instance, by delivering messages to specific segments of the electorate or assigning volunteers to canvass neighborhoods where pockets of supporters reside. In contrast, television is a rather inefficient way to advertise, especially where media markets cross state lines and there is significant competition for audience attention.11 The question is whether the advantages of digital tools will ever weaken the hold that media consultants currently enjoy over how campaigns spend their money.

Even without enormous sums spent on Internet advertising or data analytics, however, the new digital tools have transformed campaigns in several important respects. As Daniel Kreiss observes in Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics, “From Howard Dean to Barack Obama, new media have provided campaigns with new ways to find and engage supporters, to run their internal operations, and to translate the energy and enthusiasm generated by candidates and political opportunities into the staple resources of American election- eering.”12 Far from a simple or straightforward story of technological change, Kreiss and others have shown how the developers of digital campaign tools confronted numerous technical challenges, unforeseen setbacks, and occasional clashes with broadcast media consultants over the allocation of campaign resources.13 In other words, innovation and speculation are an ongoing feature of political work, as is the struggle over the control of that work. For instance, an important consequence of digital campaigning is the renewed emphasis on “ground wars” that marry sophisticated targeting methods with field operations that can mobilize volunteers and canvass would-be supporters.14 The increasing value placed on face-to-face contacts and other forms of “personalized communication” reminds us that many involved in the day-to-day work of political campaigns are volunteers and low-paid staffers who lack the technical expertise or professional status of political consul- tants.15 Media consultants may be the dominant voice in most campaigns, but they must work to remain so in light of digital techniques that challenge their control over political work.

Looking back, previous innovations have also fueled competition in the conduct of campaigns. During the first half of the twentieth century, publicity experts, public relations men, and pollsters challenged party workers and journalists as sources of political intelligence and advice. With the spread of radio and television, advertising agencies provided the personnel and expertise needed to run a modern campaign. In the 1970s, specialized consulting firms largely displaced ad agencies by embracing the partisan nature of political work, as well as tailoring their products and services to the needs and budgets of the candidate.

In a similar fashion, some believe that the new wave of digital technology will undermine the control media consultants currently enjoy in the conduct of campaigns by placing powerful tools of outreach and communication directly in the hands of the candidate. “With a relatively small staff and some creative thinking,” one observer suggests, “you could bootstrap an entire campaign with no consultants that would miss out on nothing but paying the commissions.”16 However, there are reasons to be cautious of breathless accounts that foresee radical changes in politics wrought by the Internet.

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