Political Consulting: Lots of Money, Very Few Results

One of the things I’ve been following in this presidential election is the fact that all of the big money spent on purchasing television ads is having almost no effect. The few journalists I’ve found who are reporting on the story have asked why campaigns continue to throw so much money down that particular rabbit hole.

Lee Drutman provides an answer to that question in his review of the book Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy by Adam Sheingate in the current edition of the Washington Monthly.

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.”

Here’s the result:

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.

The title of this article says it all: The “Con” in Political Consulting. Recently questions have been raised about whether the “con” goes beyond the consultants and also involves the candidates themselves (think: Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich). This is a topic that deserves much more attention and so I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read this one.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .