Why Don’t Former Staff Talk?

Alec MacGillis is looking at the Cain/Perry charges and countercharges, and has a great question:

The flurry of charges and demands for apologies between the two camps leaves me with one question: why doesn’ t this sort of thing happen more often? Political consultants are famously mercenary, jumping from one team to another with the constancy of a left-handeded reliever or utility infielder. Why don’t we hear of more instances of consultants picking up damaging information about a candidate they’re working for one year and then using it, years later, when they happen to be working in the camp of a candidate in opposition to the former employer? Do they do so often but manage to be discreet about it? Or is there in fact an honor among thieves that generally constrains such behavior?

I’ve done some work on career paths of campaign professionals that’s marginally relevant here, so I’ll take a crack at it. I can think of three reasons:

1. I suspect the issue comes up less often than you would think. While some of these folks (media experts, pollsters) work for many candidates, a lot of consultants and campaign professionals work for one candidate per cycle, so they’re not really walking around with inside information about all that many candidates — and they’re not all that likely to flip and oppose their old boss all that often. Remember, it takes a contested primary in the first place — a contested primary with at least two candidates who are well enough funded to hire staff and consultants, with at least one of them a candidate who has hired such people in at least one previous campaign. Then you also need in that contested primary a situation in which for some reason a consultant and her old boss don’t want to keep working together, and then the same consultant signing on with a different candidate. I don’t know how often that whole thing comes together, but it must not be all that often.  The most likely place to find it, I’d guess, would be US Senate and gubernatorial primaries, but even those are not all that frequent, at least not contested ones.

2. MacGillis speculates about “honor among thieves”, but I’d put it a bit different. It’s certainly the case that reputation, including reputation for long-term loyalty, is a major selling point for campaign professionals. Would you hire a consultant who was blabbing the deepest secrets of his old boss? What’s that consultant likely to do to you in the future?

3. And anyway: it’s also really easy to exaggerate the number of skeletons that politicians have in their closets, at least the ones that their staff know about. Very few pols, I’m sure, have a backstory that includes multiple sexual harassment settlements! Now, presumably quite a few pols have slept with people they shouldn’t have slept with, or wouldn’t survive a very close examination of their old company’s books and taxes…but they aren’t telling their campaign staff about it.

So add that all up, and I’d guess that it explains most of why a former staffer or consultant harming her old boss that way is rare.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.