The Evolving Business of Political Consulting
Raymond D. Strother
This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.
There have been political consultants since the advent of democracies but the modern era evolved in a rush after Richard Nixon lost a debate to John Kennedy because of his perceived bad appearance on television. Television sets had become a looming presence in the corner and people began to get their political information from a collection of scan lines.
Insecure candidates realized that a firm handshake and a microphone on the courthouse steps were not substitutes for a carefully crafted television commercial. Campaigns were about to be brought into living rooms.
From that point political consultants evolved at a lightening speed that rivals even the development of computers.
And, although political polling had also been evolving since the middle of the Twentieth Century, it became apparent that it was necessary to have a marriage between the creative and the analytical to help insure communications success. Of course various specialties and precise targeting have become valuable tools, but the symbiotic relationship pollsters and media consultants began to change the character of candidates and elections.
In the late sixties there was a small gaggle of political professionals who had emerged from ideology and passion. They gave a damn about their political ideals and became fiercely loyal to candidates who reflected their zeal. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that consulting was akin to religion in its fervor. Therefore, it was almost a surprise when we woke after one cycle or another and realized that people were paying big bucks for our evolving knowledge. And it was a great secret, but one that didn’t long escape attention.
Political pros who had worked in the ideological trenches for decades began to sell their services. Because they were newcomers trying to break in or because the field was so dominated by the old lions, they began to offer their services to candidates in smaller races with smaller budgets than the U. S. Senate and governor. The ranks began to swell as people running for city council or mayor of a small town reached out for professional help.
At this point the passion for politics often began to compete with the lure of the large profit. People with minimal skills, glib tongues and connections began selling and contracting campaigns. There were few rules and almost no accountability.
This is not to say that all new entrants were charlatans. They absolutely were not. Some of the best consultants in the business have fewer than ten years experience. It is simply that the universe of consultants had swelled to the point that we had our share of people who put their bank accounts ahead of the welfare of their clients. We had some cynics who abused the system instead of worshiping in the democratic church. But, well-deserved headlines aside, our percentage of those who embarrassed us reflected the number of tainted attorneys, physicians, clergymen, and politicians.
Our consultant professional organization, The American Association of Political Consultants, increased its serious dialogue on ethics and professional standards. Peer pressure began to slowly influence conduct of those consultants who were perhaps a little too pragmatic. The organization slammed push polling and began awarding highest honors to those who distinguished themselves in the democratic process.
Several universities, realizing the need for trained professionals, began teaching future political consultants. George Washington University, American, Florida, Akron, and Southern Cal, among others, began awarding degrees. The Institute of Politics at Harvard promoted principled dialogue. Louisiana State University developed a fine doctorate in political communications. And, candidates began to consider the ramifications of hiring people who brought a tainted product to their campaigns.
America now has thousands of professional political consultants who craft campaigns for every level of political participation. And most of them are serving their clients well, helping them invest their efforts and communications dollars in an efficient manner. Because running for office is becoming more costly and more difficult.
When I began my business in 1967 there were no television remote controls and only three or four channels to choose between. To change programs one had to walk across the room and turn a clunking dial. It was not hard to spend a client’s money on television to reach a maximum audience and it required little skill.
But where does a candidate turn today without advice on approaching satellite television, cable, Tivo, ethnic radio, targeted direct mail, and digital campaigning? How does one sort through the methods of reaching potential voters in a climate of minimal voter participation? The answer, of course, is that the highly trained political consultant is more important today than ever before. Throwing money against a wall won’t win campaigns. Communications today is highly specialized, expensive, and subtle.
Those who blame consultants for the increasing cost of campaigns have not looked at America’s changing life styles or the cost of postage, television and radio time, polling, newspaper line rates, and printing.
And blaming consultants for the vitriol in campaigns ignores the candidate’s involvement and the voter’s interest in acquiring more information about candidates than they can get from their neighbors and the coat-over-the-shoulder, feel good glimpses on television. Studies prove that voters learn enough from comparative advertising to have a reason or an excuse to make their decisions.
As voters evolve in their perceptions of candidates and political institutions, so do consultants. David Broder’s column from a decade or so ago resulted in “Fact Check” newspaper articles. These made consultants and candidates more careful. In recent campaigns, consultants who worked harder on their personal image than their candidate’s find work harder to get.
And it is obvious now that future consultants and elected officials will be slower to involve political consultants in the process of government. Our skills are honed to get a candidate elected, not how to govern. The two do not seem to compliment each other.
As technology, legislation, and public perception evolves, so will the business of political consulting. But it will always be a part of a healthy democratic system. No apology necessary.