Spinmeisters, consultants, political propagandists — especially the kind of hired gun who touts candidates by sliming the opposition — have been with us since the dawn of the Republic.
Exhibit A: James Callender, an 18th-century Scottish immigrant who unearthed the sex scandal ensnaring the first US treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, that helps pivot the plot of Hamilton, the smash Broadway musical. But Callender’s contributions to our nation’s history didn’t stop there. The founding father of the negative campaign ad got his start on the payroll of none other than Thomas Jefferson. On his way to becoming the nation’s third president, Jefferson hired the ex-newspaperman to dig up dirt on his political opponents. Feeling his boss paid him less than he deserved for the Hamilton job, Callender hired out to Jefferson’s opponents — and promptly broke the story about the sage of Monticello’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemings — a story that has since been vindicated by the DNA of Jefferson’s biracial descendants.
Alas, poor Callender. He was born three centuries too soon. Were he alive today, he’d undoubtedly find himself much more richly remunerated. His line of work has morphed into an entire profession, built around the one sector of the US economy that never seems to experience a recession.
We’re talking politics.
Just hours after Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg reported that her campaign aides were pressing donors for $1.1 billion to fund the general-election campaign. That’s on top of $300 million she and her allies already have spent. Add in what Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican also-rans spent and once again, we appear on track to break new spending records. Between 2000 and 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis, spending on elections doubled to more than $6 billion. And keep in mind those figures do not include dark-money groups’ spending, which, as their name suggests, goes largely unreported.
So just what does a huge percentage of that money buy?
Who’s giving has always been important to watch. But who’s getting it has become increasingly intriguing. In the era of the endless campaign, our Gross Political Product arguably has created new avenues of hidden influence, and profoundly altered the way we talk to and about each other as fellow citizens.
In a New York Times op-ed last December, Adam Scheingate, the chairman of the political science department at Johns Hopkins University, argued that today’s negative, sound-bite style of political discourse is the product of consultant-driven campaigns. Scheingate, whose recent book, Building a Business of Politics, is about “the rise of political consulting and the transformation of democracy,” and charts the growth of the industry through the eye-popping amounts of money candidates are paying for consultants’ services: Between the 2008 and 2012 campaign, Scheingate writes, the amount more than doubled to $100 million, not including that secret cash from the dark-money groups.
As Scheingate (and, subsequently, a number of gleeful media executives) noted, much of that money goes for expenses connected with political advertising. According to the latest figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the No. 1 political vendor of the 2016 cycle so far, with more than $82 million in receipts, is Old Towne Media which made the lion’s share of its reported earnings clients include Sanders’ Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton. And No. 3, with $64 million in receipts, is Oath Strategies LLC, a Virginia company formed just to buy airtime for Right to Rise, the super PAC that backed Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful campaign for president.
Despite the underwhelming results for Bush’s overwhelming show of financial force, candidates still are being advised to double down. “Ads definitely move numbers,” said Brad Mont, whose Media Ventures was one of the partner firms in Oath Strategies. “We’ve seen it.”
The fact that America’s would-be leaders are credulously following the advice of people who have such a large financial interest in offering it is one of the points journalist Andrew Cockburn made in his April piece for Harper’s. One of the political scientists quoted in the story offered a piece of wisdom that anyone living in a political battleground state could corroborate: There comes a point when there are so many ads that they become counterproductive. This was the same sad conclusion Bush super PAC bundler Mel Immergut came to after his own turn at knocking on doors put him face to face with voters who’d been suffering through the Right to Rise TV ad blitz. “They resent it and they don’t react well,” Immergut said in a recent interview with BillMoyers.com.
TV ads are not all that political consultants consult about. A quick stroll through candidates’ latest accountings of what they’re spending money on provides a mind-boggling glimpse of just how far-flung the industry has become. Federal Election Commission records list payments to consultants for campaign strategy, online strategy, polling, legal advice, fundraising, media buys, email campaigns, direct-mail campaigns — there are even consultants who provide advice on how to comply with (or, as often appears to be the case, get around) our Swiss cheese of a campaign finance regulatory system.
Based on our very rough analysis of expenditure data, candidates for the House and Senate already have spent almost $75 million on this sort of stuff. We came to that figure by downloading all of the 2016 congressional candidate expenditure data from the FEC and filtering it for any expenses that listed the word “consult” in their description. You can peruse all 17,387 line items here. And that’s just the candidates themselves. The outside groups such as the pro-Bush Right to Rise or the pro-Hillary Clinton Priorities USA pour most of their money into advertising and other campaign-related communications. But they also hire consultants: Of the more than $400 million into “independent expenditures” to tout or troll candidates running for president and Congress this year, more than $500,000 has gone to pay consultants. Again, this does not include spending by dark money groups, which never have to disclose this level of detail about their expenditures.
Who says politicians can’t create jobs?
As Scheingate documents, the more money candidates have, the more consultants’ services they buy. Even this year’s vaunted outsiders have fallen in line. As The Washington Post reported, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has been a bonanza for consultants. Donald Trump, a man who scorned pollsters, recently succumbed to a sudden urge to hire a few.
— From the American Association of Political Consultants' Code of Ethics
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, current president of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) (yes, there is a trade association, with — hold the jokes — a code of ethics), says that what’s happening in politics is just a reflection of society’s trend toward specialization. “Barbers used to be surgeons before there were surgeons,” he observed. Mellman also points out that all that money being poured out of political campaigns isn’t going straight into consultants’ pockets. “A lot of the money is going to TV stations,” he said, and, in the case of polling companies, “interview firms.”
Still, it’s worth reflecting on what it means that the business of political conflict now supports an entire industry of contractors and subcontractors.
The AAPC, which Mellman says was comprised of “a few guys — and they were guys” when it was founded in 1969, now boasts 1,350 member companies. As Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) recently told us, we’re a long way from the days when his father, the late Stewart Udall, paid for his congressional campaign’s yard signs by holding a potluck fundraiser once an election cycle.
And as we should certainly have learned by now, what’s good for any particular industry isn’t necessarily good for America. In this era of the endless campaign, America’s elected representatives and wannabes are surrounded 24/7 by politician-whisperers who do what they need to do to keep those paychecks coming. Pollsters advise candidates how to win, not how to become the next chapter in Profiles in Courage.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
It’s also important to note that many consulting firms on the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of top-grossing vendors also work for private-sector clients — clients with interests before the US government. The powerhouse GMMB that produced campaign ads for President Obama boasts AT&T and Visa. Smart Media Group, which specializes in Republican candidates, has MasterCard, the cable TV industry trade association, the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Education Association. Bully Pulpit Interactive, also Obama media-campaign veterans, has Google and Exelon. All of this raises questions about whether these firms are part of Washington’s growing culture of “unlobbyists” — people who aren’t required to register as lobbyists but who are more influential than many who do. If the same company that helped you win your last election comes knocking on your door on behalf of a company that needs a favor, aren’t you going to be more inclined to listen? If you have data that can help a corporate client reach influential voters in the same precincts where you just helped a candidate win, don’t you want to do your best to help the people who are paying you?
More than five decades ago, a two-term president exited the White House warning his fellow Americans about another cabal of insiders: the military-industrial complex. With a few word substitutions, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s admonition is eerily applicable today in the midst of another (relatively) bloodless war that has pitted Americans against Americans. Ike worried about “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” over government and “a disastrous rise of misplaced power.” The newest form of war profiteers may be those who profit from our political wars.