Opinion

The GOP’s consultant problem

Photo of Morton Blackwell
Morton Blackwell
Founder, Leadership Institute
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      Morton Blackwell

      Morton Blackwell began in 1960 to identify, train and place bright young conservatives for activism in the public policy process. Founder of the Leadership Institute in 1979 and its president since then, Mr. Blackwell has wide experience in and out of government. In 1980, Mr. Blackwell organized the national youth effort for Ronald Reagan. He served for the first three years of the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. While on the White House Staff, he was the President's liaison to conservative, veterans and religious groups. He also served as the Project Officer for the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America. In January 1984, Mr. Blackwell left the White House Staff to work full-time as the president of the Leadership Institute, his educational foundation dedicated to training and placing conservatives. Today Morton Blackwell continues to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists through the programs of his Leadership Institute, which now has more than 108,097 graduates of its training and more than 1,335 independent, conservative student groups active on college campuses in all 50 states.

Let us begin with a common story in politics: a smart campaign staffer helps win a high-visibility election and decides to become a consultant.

The new consultant is soon involved in another win or two and is suddenly able to sell his services to many campaigns.

While able to give his few early clients a great deal of personal time, the consultant quickly finds it impossible to give the same type of service to half a dozen candidates simultaneously.

Unable to supervise detailed operations involving many layers of people in many campaigns at once, the consultant directs his client campaigns toward media-intensive, rather than people-intensive, activity. Media decisions are few in number. They require skill but little time.

The consultant also realizes it is very much in his own financial interest to have as much of his clients’ budgets spent on media as possible.

Most consultants take a 15% commission (over and above client-paid production costs and his retainer) from media vendors for all placements.

The consultant knows he gets no commission for campaign funds spent on people-intensive activity, such as:

● precinct organization

● voter ID phone banks

● voter registration drives

● youth effort

● the Election Day process to get out the vote

With their budgets warped toward media spending, candidates and in-state organizations are led to measure the progress of campaigns by dollars raised and tracking polls.

When I ask a candidate in a close race how he is doing and he answers by first describing his fundraising progress, I know he is in trouble.

In defense of his practices, the consultant develops an outspoken contempt for any proposal for significant campaign expenditures except for paid media.

Many of his clients lose due to their failure to organize large numbers of people in their campaigns. But some of his clients do win. These winners are the ones the consultant talks about as he recruits clients in the next election cycle.

Having helped several candidates, the consultant is likely to be hired again to run their re-election campaigns. The incumbents have the ability to amass huge campaign funds, often from local donors.

Even in the closing days of a re-election campaign in which an incumbent is virtually unopposed, the consultant has a strong incentive to urge his incumbent to raise more and more money.

Never mind that candidates from the incumbent’s party might win close contests nearby but for the incumbent’s having vacuumed up money from available donors. After all, for every $100,000 spent on broadcast media, the consultant pockets a cool $15,000 — plus his fees for creating new commercials.

The consultant, now prosperous and enjoying a changed lifestyle, has ready access to and influence with some incumbent officeholders.

He decides to branch out into lobbying, where his influence enables him to pull down some really fat fees from major corporations, trade associations, and even foreign governments which have major financial interests in the decisions of elected and appointed government officials.