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.
By now, most of the consultant’s income does not come from election campaigns. But he continues to take some candidates as clients, partly to keep his valuable ties with incumbents and partly because there are in each election cycle some rich candidates and others able to raise big war chests. These war chests will be spent largely on campaign media, still a fine source of income for the consultant.
Not all successful consultants behave this way. But a great many do.
This growing problem with consultants has many bad effects:
● The unnecessary losses of many good candidates each year
● The looting of millions of dollars misspent on media
● The suckering of many rich candidates who are falsely led by consultants to believe they can win
● The increasing perception that campaigning is mostly mudslinging TV commercials
● Worst of all, the general decline of citizen participation as activists and, often, even as voters in the political process
Historically, volunteer participation in elections has been the greatest preparation for competent campaign management and good candidates in future elections. That source of new activists and candidates can dry up when campaigns focus on paid media and neglect grassroots organization.
Can grassroots activists do anything to limit the damage done by the increasing dominance of campaign consultants?
In the years leading up to the 1980 election, conservative organizations ran massive political education and training efforts. Activists were prepared by the thousands. That grassroots infrastructure-building should be vigorously resumed.
If you contribute to a candidate, you have the right to demand that his or her campaign give a healthy budget to people-oriented programs: precinct organizations, youth efforts, etc. These activities build grassroots infrastructure like no others.
If you are a donor to a conservative organization, you should demand that a substantial portion of its budget be spent on increasing the number and the effectiveness of its activists. If a group fails to do this, give to other groups instead.
If you are a donor to a party organization, demand that it spends your money, in part, on a serious program of political education and training. There is hardly any area of political technology which cannot be mastered by a willing local activist.
The winner in a political contest is ultimately determined by the number and the effectiveness of the activists and leaders on the respective sides — not their TV commercials.
Morton Blackwell is the founder of the Leadership Institute.