Let’s face it. Even those of us who love politics are already a little weary of the 2016 campaign. We are more than half a year away from election day, and already hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the endless stream of television ads blanketing the airwaves. The voters, we learn, are angry that they have no control over the process and are furious with the elites who do. Candidates spend endless, demeaning hours grubbing for the money they will need for TV advertising. And why? Because they are surrounded by consultants who tell them that they must. In the 2012 election, of the $6 billion spent, $3.6 billion went to campaign consultants. In all likelihood, 2016 will be the most expensive election on record, with most of the money going directly to the consultants. Ever-growing numbers of journalists now investigate and document the flow of money from big donors to candidates and their super PACs. But they may be missing the bigger story: that the campaign consulting industry has conned an entire class of donors and candidates into thinking that the way to win is to raise ever-increasing sums of money and spend it on ever-increasing amounts of ad buys.

Building a Business of Politics:
The Rise of Political
Consulting and the
Transformation of
American Democracy

by Adam Sheingate
Oxford University Press, 296 pp.

The Johns Hopkins political science professor Adam Sheingate details this phenomenon in his fascinating new book, Building a Business of Politics. These days, pretty much every candidate who runs for office does so with a professional consultant. As Sheingate explains, they pretty much have to. Donors and party leaders don’t take you seriously until you have a decent consultant. “Most of the key decisions in contemporary campaigns are now in the hand of consultants,” writes Sheingate. “The definition of public problems, the framing of issues, and the formation of interest all rely on the services of a professional political class.”

Sheingate traces the birth of political consultancy—ironically—to the Progressive Era, with its hopeful vision of a rational, transparent, information-based politics. “Publicity, many believed, would hold public officials accountable to the voters and help citizens form enlightened opinions about the issues of the day,” he writes. It was supposed to break up “boss rule” and usher in a new era of open government. Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastically embraced public relations as “a tool of enlightened administration, employing modern means in the pursuit of traditional ends.” As a writer in McClure’s put it, “The democracy of the printing press has come; and Roosevelt was its founder.”

But the limits of the rationalist progressive vision of publicity were soon apparent. Woodrow Wilson, who had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” turned around in 1917 and got us into war. He then launched an impressive propaganda operation, the Committee on Public Information, to convince the country that what had been the wrong decision was now the right decision. A former CPI director’s memoir described “an age of lies,” in which “we never told the whole truth … we told that part which served the national purpose.”

The flaw in the rationalist progressive faith was simply this: the public had limited attention, and newspapers and magazines had limited space. And so, as the journalist Walter Lippmann trenchantly observed, “circumstances in all their sprawling complexity” could not be faithfully described, and “enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions will be reported” had to be exercised. Gradually, “[p]ropaganda undermined the presumption of a rational public,” writes Sheingate. “In its place, a … view emerged of mass society manipulated by words, images, and symbols … susceptible to lies and half-truths.”

By the 1928 election, advertising had established itself in politics. The reporter Charles Michelson observed that “the American people will elect as President of the United States in November a nonexistent person—and defeat a likewise mythical identity. They will vote for and against a picture … that must be either a caricature or an idealization.” For the next several decades, admen, pollsters, and academic social scientists sharpened their analysis of behavioral psychology, and burrowed ever deeper into politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt began to use polling to inform strategy, including poll-testing different explanations of a federal farm subsidy program. In 1930s California, the first dedicated political consulting firm, Campaigns Inc., was born. It used modern marketing techniques primarily to help business groups and trade associations. Campaigns Inc. was used to defeat ballot measures, legislative proposals, and candidates—most famously, Upton Sinclair’s bid for the California governor’s mansion in 1934—that threatened business interests. It also rewarded newspapers that ran its press releases with paid advertising.

Gradually, specialists in mass media and polling began to replace the old political bosses and ward heelers. Campaign PR was mostly handled by the large advertising firms. But candidates worried about the optics of turning over their campaigns to the same agencies that marketed bars of soap. They also worried whether ad agencies were really members of the party team—and what did they really know about politics?

Those objections largely vanished when, in 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act required new, demanding disclosure of campaign expenditures. For campaigns that had previously disregarded bookkeeping as an irrelevant nuisance, consultants offered an easy compliance solution. As Sheingate explains, “[u]nder the new rules, political consulting became a legitimate campaign expense … helping the industry grow into a critical intermediary linking candidates, political parties, and the various donors who financed capital-intensive campaigns.”

By 1978, half of all House candidates had hired a consultant or a pollster. Separate networks of Democratic and Republican consultants emerged, becoming “a crucial part of the connective tissue linking causes, candidates, and party committees in an extended partisan network.” By 1989, an estimated 12,000 people earned a living in the consulting industry.

The business model was straightforward. Consultants produced broadcast ads, taking a markup of about 18 percent on production. Then they placed the ads, taking another 15 percent commission. They produced and sent direct mail, and conducted ongoing polling, helping candidates to better sell themselves. They helped with fund-raising. It was a business, and, as Sheingate writes, “the more polls, pieces of mail, or television advertisements a consultant provided, the more money he or she made from the campaign.”

But the returns were, and are, marginal at best, and they’re diminishing, especially in the high-profile presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races (money makes more of a difference in down-ballot races where name recognition matters more). As partisan voting loyalties have solidified over the last several decades, the ability of candidates to add voters through advertisements or the various forms of digital micro-targeting now in vogue appears pretty minimal. Consultants nonetheless continue to add services, peddling new tools for voter mobilization and “digital democracy,” but Sheingate is appropriately skeptical of the claim that “new technologies will produce a radical opening of the political process.”

This begs the obvious question: If most services that consultants provide have little to no measurable impact, why do candidates continue to spend so much on them? Sheingate offers no direct answer to this, but his research suggests that consultants are valuable because they ensure compliance with federal finance regulations and confer legitimacy to the campaigns they work on. Another possible answer is that it’s hard to evaluate the quality of consultants. Those with experience tend to go with strong incumbents, while candidates are left with picking consultants based only on their win-loss record alone.

No matter how well consultants insist they understand the voters, along comes a candidate like Donald Trump, who says all the things you’re not supposed to say and still rockets to the top of the polls and stays there for months. Perhaps this is heartening, in that there are still surprises left in politics. But they are far and few in between. Consultants package their candidates for television: simple themes, big on the personal biography while hitting your opponents’ character hard. Such a campaign waged primarily in high-production, short-duration television spots can never be a genuine war of ideas, or a space for experimentation and innovation. Moreover, as direct mail and other forms of micro-targeting have proliferated, candidates have been advised to slice and dice themselves into different ways to appeal to as many different demographic groups as possible.

Most troubling is all of that damn money. Raising it comes at a real cost. At the very least, it’s a tremendous time suck for candidates, and a degrading task that surely keeps a lot of decent people from running for office in the first place. It also creates an unhealthy reliance on wealthy donors, who are then in a position to dictate policy positions.

It’s hard to see how this reverses, especially in the super PAC era. But perhaps at some point donors will realize that their money gets wasted on consultants selling services with marginal impact. And perhaps candidates will realize that they could raise and spend a lot less money and still win. Maybe then we could get back to that original Progressive Era vision of publicity that launched the whole industry in the first place.

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Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the New America Political Reform program and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.