Party Crashers? The Relationship between Political Consultants and Political Parties

David A Dulio. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The role that professional political consultants play in US elections today has become a puzzle that academics and journalists alike have recently started to piece together. ‘Hitmen’ (‘Political Advertising’s Hitmen,’ 1980), ‘image merchants’ (Hiebert et al., 1971), and ‘issue choosers’ (O’Shaughnessey 1990) are among the litany of disparaging labels that have been used to describe political consultants. The conventional wisdom holds consultants responsible for many of the problems that seem to plague modern elections in the United States, including the high cost of elections, the negative nature of campaigns, and the lack of issue-based debates between candidates.

Arguably the most important indictment levied against professional consultants is that they are partially, if not fully, responsible for the decline of the parties’ role in electioneering. What these characterizations gloss over, however, is that political consultants have important ties to political parties that relate to how parties conduct elections and strive to meet their goals. To some extent both consultants and parties serve the same master—they are responsible for helping to elect candidates to office.

How these two important electoral actors relate to each other in the current state of elections is the focus of this chapter. First, the development of professional consultants in elections is briefly considered vis-ă-vis political parties. Next, two competing interpretations of the consultant-party relationship are outlined -are consultants and parties allies or adversaries?

The consequences of this relationship are also briefly considered in the following context: Is this relationship beneficial to modern political parties or does it hinder their progress to their main goal (i.e., gaining and holding seats in government)? The close and important relationship that professional political consultants have with parties does not stop on election day, however. To that end, I illustrate how consultants and parties are linked during the non-campaign season—when elected officials are supposed to be tending to the ‘people’s business.’ The chapter concludes with a look into the future of this relationship, with a special focus on how recent campaign reforms may affect both actors.

The Simultaneous Development of Consultants and Parties

The question of how professional consultants relate to political parties today can only be fully answered by looking back at how each has changed through the history of electioneering. Indeed, the two actors have an interrelated past.

The fact that political parties once dominated campaigning in the United States has been well documented (Sorauf, 1980; Crotty 1984; Ware, 1985; Herrnson, 1988, 2000, 2004; Aldrich, 1995; Maisel and Buckley, 2005). The ‘party-centered’ electoral system was one in which parties controlled just about every aspect of campaigning from candidate recruitment and voter contact to message development and get-out-the-vote operations (Sorauf, 1980; Herrnson, 1988; Keefe, 1998; Ware, 1985). However, after their ‘golden age’ parties lost much of this electioneering prowess. Many critics of campaign consultants lay a good deal of the blame for this loss of power at the feet of political professionals. These sentiments are nicely summarized by Larry Sabato (1981: 286) who argues that consultants ‘along with their electoral wares, have played a moderate part in … the continuing decline of party organization … [and have] abetted the slide, sometimes with malice aforethought. … The services provided by consultants, their new campaign technologies, have undoubtedly supplanted party activities and influence.’

Political consultants, however, are not to blame for the decline in electoral power political parties have suffered. Other factors surrounding, and changes to, the electioneering landscape weakened parties before consultants ever appeared on the scene. Consider, for instance, the Robert La Follette-led Progressive Movement of the early 1900s. The reforms instituted by the Progressives, such as the introduction of the direct primary, the elimination of patronage (with the Pendleton Act), and registration and ballot reforms, all served to weaken parties. These reforms (and others like them) meant that the party no longer controlled candidate recruitment, it was easier for voters to split their tickets, and rather than the party being the monopolizing force behind campaigns, candidates were now encouraged ‘to develop their own campaign organization[s]’ (Herrnson, 1988: 26).

In addition, the electorate to which candidates and parties were making their electoral pitches was undergoing drastic changes. In the early 1930s roughly 75 million people were eligible to vote in presidential elections; by the late 1960s that number had risen to over 120 million. ‘Party organizations, designed for campaigning to a limited electorate on a personal basis, were not an efficient means for reaching [the] … growing pool of voters’ (Salmore and Salmore, 1989: 41). This meant that candidates had to find another way to communicate with potential voters. At the same time, the United States was in the middle of a push toward a media-dominated society; that candidates looked to television as a communication tool was inevitable.

As a result of these changes, the shift from a style of campaigning that was party-based and focused on personal contact to one that was more candidate-centered and mass-communication-based began to appear. In other words, campaigns moved away from being labor-intensive—stressing ‘canvassing and public meetings’—to being capital-intensive -characterized by a high ‘degree of campaign professionalism’ (Farrell, 1996: 168–9). It soon became clear that candidates and parties could no longer campaign in the way that they once had. Candidates needed help; they demanded assistance with the electioneering tools of the day. With this, candidates turned to those with the requisite skills—professional political consultants.

That said, however, professional political consultants did not become major players in federal elections until the mid-1900s. It was not until this time that there was broad use of consultants by candidates in congressional and presidential elections. One estimate of consultant activity during the 1950s found only 41 public relations firms offering complete campaign management services; by 1972 that number had only risen to 100 (Rosenbloom, 1973). Further, as of the 1978 campaign, only 9 percent of all candidates for the US House of Representatives were found to have hired a campaign manager, while only 39 percent hired a media consultant (Goldenberg and Traugott, 1984). Indeed, ‘[f]rom its start …, the campaign management industry grew rather slowly. A few companies went in and out of business shortly after World War II, and some public relations and advertising firms started accepting political clients in the late 1940s. [It was not until] the 1950s [that] there was a slow but steady expansion’ (Rosenbloom, 1973: 50).

Therefore, the ascendance of professional political consultants was a reaction to rather than a cause of political party decline. Political consultants stepped in to fill a void that was left when parties were weakened and when they could not help all their candidates as effectively as they once did (Dulio, 2004).

Parties have continually modified their behavior according to the electoral context of the day. Both parties saw their electoral power wane in the wake of the reforms and changes of the late 1800s and early 1900s to a point where they were described as being ‘peripheral’ to the campaign (Herrnson, 1988). After a period of weakness parties underwent what some have called a resurgence (Kayden and Mahe, 1985) or a revitalization (Aldrich, 1995) when they began to regain some of their influence in elections by offering technologically sophisticated services to their candidates (e.g., help with fundraising and television production) and by re-dedicating themselves to raising money. Parties were now the ‘intermediary’ (Herrnson, 1988) through which campaigns were waged and were ‘in service’ to their candidates (Aldrich, 1995). The ascendance of political consultants to an important role in US elections is simply another adjustment both major parties have made over time.

Further evidence of this can be seen in more recent adaptations of political parties in the United States—the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the Republican National Committee (RNC), as well as their campaign committees, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Through these arms of their headquarters, parties actually began to work with political consultants and seek out their help.

For instance, during the 1970s and 1980s both parties saw their fundraising coffers swell to their highest levels ever (Herrnson, 1988; White and Shea, 2004); however, they could not have accomplished this without the help of private political consultants who were not formally connected to the party. From their newly built headquarters on Capitol Hill, and at the direction of their chairmen, both the Republicans and Democrats launched direct-mail fundraising campaigns. However, they each looked to professional consultants for help; RNC Chair William Brock looked to consultant Richard Viguerie, and DNC Chair Charles Mannatt hired the firm of Carver, Matthews, Smith, and Company. Additionally, Republicans hired pollsters such as Robert Teeter, Richard Wirthlin, and Stanley Finkelstein to conduct survey research for the party and their candidates; Democrats looked to survey research consultants such as Peter Hart and Matt Reese for similar help (Herrnson, 1988). What is more, even at the time that parties were said to be ‘in service’ to their candidates and providing the services that were in great demand by candidates of the day—such as help with the production of television commercials—political consultants were not far removed from the process. Both parties constructed state-of-the-art television production facilities in their headquarters and offered their candidates assistance in making television ads for their campaigns. However, while in their use of the Harriman media center Democratic candidates looking for help could use the sophisticated facilities at hand and take advantage of the technical expertise of the staff (e.g., lighting and editing), the candidates had to ‘provide their own ideas and copy … [and] hire their own advertising experts and script writers’ (Herrnson, 1988: 62). Even when parties were in control of the services that were going to candidates, consultants played a major role in the provision of those services (Dulio, 2004).

Friends or Foes?

There are different interpretations of the historical relationship between political consultants and political parties. Some claim consultants pounced on parties when they were weak so as to make a quick buck, see the development of consultants as a threat to parties, and claim that consultants have pushed parties further into decline (Sabato, 1981). Others, however, see the relationship between consultants and parties as more benign, where parties can even reap benefits from a partnership with consultants (Kolodny and Logan, 1998; Kolodny and Dulio, 2003; Dulio and Thurber, 2003; Dulio, 2004; Dulio and Nelson, 2005).

The question of whether consultants and parties are friends or foes is an important one for a number of reasons, the most compelling of which may be that, in one view, American elections, and politics in general, are critically in need of political parties (Schattschneider, 1942)—if parties are not healthy, neither is democracy. The relationship between the two actors, however, is difficult to get at. The role of professional consultants in American politics has not been as deeply studied as other questions in political science. There are at least two explanations for the lack of information on consultants in the academic literature. First, there is a genuine lack of data about consultants generally and what it is they do during a campaign. And second, political science has tended to focus on behavioral questions (e.g., why voters vote the way they do) which means that ‘our attention has moved away from the electoral institutions in which consultants now play such a commanding role … [and that] we play less attention to the dynamics of electoral institutions and the processes of campaigning’ (Petracca, 1989: 11). Many of those studies that have been done on consultants, however, contain little or no systematic exploration of consultants’ place in campaigns. Most of these accounts are descriptive in nature and their conclusions are based mainly on speculation and assertion from anecdotal evidence.

For similar reasons, explorations of the consultant-party relationship are even less numerous. However, as noted above, those who have examined the connection between consultants and parties fall into two general camps—they see them as either allies or adversaries. The allies versus adversaries hypothesis was first put forth by Robin Kolodny and Angela Logan (1998). ‘According to the adversarial view, consultants do not compliment parties and act as little more than advertising agencies’ (Kolodny and Logan, 1998: 155). However, under the allied view, ‘consultants do for candidates what parties simply cannot,’ and ‘consultants value party goals’ and ‘are not anathemic to a party’s mission, i.e., to elect like-minded candidates who will promote a certain agenda through the implementation of public policy’ (Kolodny and Logan, 1998: 155).

The claims of those who subscribe to the consultants-and-parties-as-adversaries view interpret the development of the two actors over time as one of competition in a zero-sum game (i.e., if one actor’s power increases the other’s must decrease) and conclude that because parties are weaker than they were before, the rise of the consultants must be the cause. The specific criticisms of those in this camp include that consultants have wrestled control of campaigns away from candidates (Petracca, 1989), homogenized American politics, increased the costs of campaigns, and narrowed the focus of elections (Sabato, 1981). In their view, consultants control every aspect of a campaign from the issues that the candidate will run on to how the candidate will communicate with the public. In other words, consultants now do what the party machines of yesteryear once did.

Those who see consultants and parties as adversaries also interpret the ascendance of consultants and modern electioneering techniques as a displacement of parties in their role as the main players in elections. In other words, consultants appeared and pushed parties to the side of the campaigning process (Sabato, 1981). Consultants’ use of mass-media communications techniques and other technically sophisticated tactics to communicate with voters was perceived as ‘creating a campaign climate where individual candidates [took] the voting public’s focus away from party platforms’ (Kolodny and Logan, 1998: 155).

The clearest, and arguably the most convincing, argument made by those who see consultants as detrimental to parties is that consultants, rather than parties, are the individuals candidates now turn to for campaign advice and the necessary help during their campaigns (Sabato, 1981). As noted above, political parties once monopolized electioneering. Even when the first blows to strict party control of a candidate’s campaign were felt—when individual campaign managers headed campaigns—the party was not too far removed—these first ‘managers’ were closely tied to the party (Medvic, 1997; Ware, 1985). However, once the use of consultants took hold as an acceptable electioneering practice, candidates had less need for the operatives who worked at the local, state, or national party headquarters. Specifically, when candidates needed help in defining their campaign theme and message (i.e., the rationale for their campaign and the reason(s) why someone should vote for them), a strategy for communicating that message, and the delivery vehicles to carry that message (e.g., radio and television commercials, and direct mailings) they turned not to the party but to consultants who, for example, knew how to conduct survey research with scientific samples, and how to produce television ads. Sabato (1981: 286) sums this up nicely when he argues that ‘The services provided by consultants, their new campaign technologies, have undoubtedly supplanted party activities and influences.’ It should also be noted that Sabato does not rely on any systematic analysis of consultant or party behavior or conduct; rather, his arguments, and those of most others who subscribe to the adversarial view, are based on assertion and conjecture.

Those who take the opposite view and see consultants and parties as allies interpret the adaptation of both actors over time in a different manner. To them, the ascent of consultants is not a detriment to parties; instead, they argue, consultants stepped in to fill an electioneering void that was created by changes in the context of campaigning (i.e., the increased numbers of eligible voters and the reforms instituted in the late 1800s and early 1900s). For instance, as Paul S. Herrnson (1988: 26) notes, after the reforms initiated by the Progressives were put in place, instead of the party headquarters being the place candidates went for advice, candidates were encouraged ‘to develop their own campaign organization[s]’ which included more of a dependence on non-party funding and other politicos to help raise the requisite funds. Moreover, when candidates began to turn to more technologically advanced ways of communicating with voters, ‘[p]olitical parties could not offer the specific information and persuasion techniques these candidates believed were vital to their chances for victory’ (Kolodny, 2000a: 111). The party operatives of that time simply did not have the technical skills that were needed to conduct survey research or produce a television spot (Dulio, 2004). In other words, ‘consultants do for candidates what the political parties simply cannot: they offer targeted technical assistance and personalized advice’ (Kolodny and Logan, 1998: 155).

The consultants-and-parties-as-allies perspective is also bolstered by evidence which shows the close working relationship the two actors have had over time. Consultants would be nowhere without clients—without them they would have no revenue. Aside from the obvious avenues consultants have for acquiring clients—they apply for campaign jobs with candidates they would like to work for, or candidates seek out the consultant—consultants may be put in touch with a potential client by the party itself (Sabato, 1981). Both parties have a long-standing practice of recommending consultants to their candidates (Herrnson, 1988). Moreover, political parties have looked to consultants for help when they have needed it over the years. For instance, as noted above, when the parties were in the midst of their ‘revitalization,’ political consultants were not too far removed from some of the major activities—consultants helped the parties build their donor bases in their fundraising initiatives of the 1970s and consultants were brought in to assist in the provision of services such as survey research and television production to candidates.

Further, recent evidence shows that parties themselves hire consultants to provide certain services that they either no longer provide or are not as well equipped to provide as consultants. In a recent survey, professional political consultants were asked about their relationship with the national party organizations.4 Part of the battery of questions included an assessment of who was better suited to provide certain services during a campaign. The consultants who were part of the survey (505 from across the USA) were clear in indicating that certain services were better supplied by the individuals in their industry than by those at the party headquarters. However, they also said that there were some services that were better handled by the party as opposed to outside consultants, indicating a partnership in electioneering services. The division of labor that appears from the survey responses is basically between tasks that are technically sophisticated and require a good deal of personal candidate attention and those that require large amounts of staff and time (Dulio, 2004). In general, consultants reported that they are better at providing the services that are centered on message creation and delivery -supplying strategic advice, producing television ads and direct mail pieces, and conducting public opinion polling—while the parties are a better source for services such as fundraising, opposition research, and get-out-the-vote operations (Dulio, 2004). The consultants in the survey also replied that they welcomed these same services from the party when they were working on a competitive campaign, further illustrating that consultants see parties as a partner in their efforts.

Interestingly, operatives at the parties’ headquarters agree with the consultants’ assessment and add further evidence to the allied view. In a separate study and survey, senior state party operatives and national party officials were asked the same battery of questions. Political party staffers agreed that professional consultants have supplanted parties in providing campaign services that are focused on message creation and delivery (Dulio and Thurber, 2003; Dulio and Nelson, 2005; see also Kolodny, 2000a). Furthermore, 70 percent of these staffers said that consultants provide services that political parties are incapable of providing. In other words, ‘consultants are viewed by the parties as being complements to the parties’ overall strategy, not competitors to it’ (Kolodny 2000a: 129). Moreover, those currently in charge at the state parties’ headquarters across the USA reported that they would continue the long-standing practice of recommending consultants to candidates running in their state in the 2002 election cycle; 60 and 73 percent of those interviewed at the national party headquarters reported that they would recommend consultants to candidates running for House and Senate, respectively.

The proponents of the allied view also cite evidence of political party behavior to illustrate that they work in concert with consultants today. For instance, the same study of party officials referenced above found that nearly 90 percent of party organizations planned to hire a pollster during the 2002 election cycle; over 80 percent reported they would hire a direct mail specialist and nearly 70 percent said they would hire a media consultant. Additionally, while both parties looked to consultants for help in providing services to candidates during their ‘rejuvenation’ of the late 1970s and 1980s, modern parties look almost exclusively to consultants to produce the services they help provide to their candidates. One manifestation of this phenomenon is in how political parties spend their resources. One study of a certain type of spending available to parties—coordinated expenditures—helps illustrate this point. During the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, both major US parties spent roughly $30 and $25 million dollars respectively in coordinated funds for services to help their candidates. These dollars ‘typically are for campaign services that a Hill committee or some other party organization gives to a candidate or purchases from a political consultant on the candidate’s behalf (Herrnson, 2000: 93). In 1998 over 90 percent of all coordinated money was paid to outside political consultants and in 2000 nearly 94 percent of these dollars went to consultants for services such as television ad production (as well as the air time for those ads), direct mail campaigns, and public opinion polls (Kolodny and Dulio, 2003).

The importance of these figures, say those who argue consultants and parties are allies, is found mainly in what they purchase. As noted above, both national parties used to offer assistance with technical campaign services such as television production to their candidates from their headquarters in Washington, DC. The new arrangement parties have with consultants does not include producing or providing these same services. Rather, they pay political consultants to provide them. Parties have moved from being a ‘party in service’ (Aldrich, 1995) to a new era of party service: the party-as-billpayer (Dulio, 2004). Evidence is found in decisions the parties have made about how best to get their candidates the services they need. Take the production of television ads, for example. Before 1986, ‘About 25 to 30 candidates [got] the full treatment’ from the NRCC in terms of help with their media campaign, which included meetings with the campaign pollster, the party field director, and one of the party’s writers (Herrnson, 1988: 63). However, in the late 1990s the Republicans stopped using their media center and began to farm out to professional consultants the production of those television ads they were going to have a hand in. According to one former party staffer, this decision was an easy one to make: ‘in order to retool [the media center], almost every election cycle, maybe two at the most, you are going to have to raise anywhere from $3 million to $5 million to $10 million to redo that and it is not worth it … For $10 million you can fund a lot of candidates’ (quoted in Dulio, 2004). Democrats have also almost completely done away with using their media center to help candidates and instead look to consultants to provide the same services they once offered (Kolodny and Dulio, 2003). Parties have continued to adapt, realizing that it is simply more efficient to pay consultants to do the same work (Dulio, 2004).

Finally, the consultants-and-parties-as-allies view is buttressed by data illustrating that political party headquarters have been a major training ground for today’s political consultants. In three different studies roughly half of the consultants operating today were found to have an employment history with the party organization at one level or another (Kolodny and Logan, 1998; Thurber et al., 2000; Dulio, 2004). What is more, those consultants who have a history of working for the party often return to work for the party in their capacity as outside consultants. Over three-quarters of consultants who had once worked for a party organization had a party organization as a client after they had left the party to go into business for themselves; this is in comparison to only 44 percent of those with no past party experience (Kolodny and Logan, 1998). This has led some to argue that consultants who once worked for the party never really leave the party and remain part of a ‘party network,’ or an extended party organization (Kolodny, 2000b; Schwartz, 1990).

This brings us to the question of whether the appearance and subsequent expansion of consultant influence in US elections has been beneficial or detrimental to political parties. The allies versus adversaries question gives us a brief look at the answer to this question. Obviously, those who are in the consultants-and-parties-as-adversaries camp argue that consultants’ presence has hindered parties at a significant cost (i.e., parties have been taken out of the electoral game), and those who argue the allied view is correct see the relationship in more optimistic terms.

Many of those approaching the relationship from the adversarial perspective focus on aspects of the party organization that are not as strong as they once used to be for evidence that consultants are detrimental to the parties’ existence. One piece of evidence of this kind would be that parties no longer control campaigns from top to bottom; parties no longer select the candidates to run in an election and they no longer help direct the campaign in terms of the issues (i.e., the message) on which the candidate will run. Those in the allied camp argue that the loss of party power in this area had already occurred and that the consultants’ role helps parties achieve their goals.

Those who approach the relationship from the allied perspective cite the fact that consultants, and the services they offer, allow parties to focus on their main goal—winning and holding seats in government (Kolodny, 1998). In addition, those in this camp point to a more efficient party organization in existence today. Modern party organizations that ‘subcontract’ work to political consultants can supply more services to more candidates under this model than if they tried to provide all the services to their candidates (Kolodny, 2000b; Dulio, 2004). As one state party executive director put it, ‘Consultants help us in areas that we either lack the professional experience or the hardware to accomplish our goals’ (quoted in Kolodny, 2000a: 127). This is beneficial in that parties are able to focus on the aspects of electioneering that they perform best so as to help more of their candidates win elections—raising money, for example. By focusing on raising the funds that are required for campaigning in the modern context and looking to various consultants to produce the services that candidates demand, parties are serving more candidates in a better manner than they would be if they tried to produce every election service in house. The parties have realized this, and one example is found in their use of their media centers. When the party tried to provide media services to their candidates, they could only provide a ‘full blown media campaign’ to 25–30 candidates (Herrnson, 1988: 63). Many more candidates got help in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles when the parties paid consultants with coordinated dollars. Moreover, this way the candidates get a more complete service in that it is more personalized and deals specifically with their campaign in their district or state.

The answer to the question of whether political parties and political consultants are friends or foes is a lengthy one that is broader than the scope of this chapter. Would parties like to be more involved in they way their candidates run their races? Undoubtedly. However, the current context of elections is not conducive to that kind of party-candidate relationship. As the electoral landscape has changed so have electoral actors (parties, candidates, voters, etc.). Indeed, the relationship between consultants and parties is simply another reaction to the changing electoral context. Parties have continually adapted over time; from monopolizing electoral politics (Sorauf, 1980) and campaigning to being ‘peripheral’ actors in campaigns (Herrnson, 1988) to being ‘intermediaries’ and ‘in service’ to their candidates (Herrnson, 1988; Aldrich, 1995). ‘Rather than seeing the proliferation of consultants as a sign of party decline,’ argues Robin Kolodny (2000b: 20) ‘their presence is actually a next step in party evolution.’ The use of, and reliance on, consultants is simply another adaptation that parties have made so they can remain focused on their main goals. Indeed, ‘consultant use by parties and candidates is a rational response’ to the changing electoral environment (Kolodny, 2000b: 20).

Beyond Election Day

While professional political consultants obviously have close ties with candidates and political parties during campaign season, the two are also linked well beyond election day. The term ‘permanent campaign,’ first coined by the then journalist Sidney Blumenthal (1982), elicits images of candidates in constant campaign mode between elections. This is not an inaccurate picture, and as Anthony King (1997) describes, candidates are often ‘running scared.’ Because candidates run for office so frequently in the United States (the best example are members of the House of Representatives who are elected every two years, but may face a primary challenge less than 18 months after being sworn into office) they need to continually engage in the activities that they would if they were in the middle of a campaign. While some candidates retain the services of political consultants between campaigns (pollsters and fundraisers are the ones most likely to be active between campaigns), parties and consultants also work together between campaigns to shape policy alternatives and to work toward the passage of government initiatives.

Another aspect of the ‘permanent campaign’ that has received less attention than the image of candidates constantly campaigning is the continual quest for public support around ideas for public policy solutions. To this end, elected officials in Congress and the White House look to outside political consultants for help. As president, Bill Clinton took the idea of the permanent campaign to new heights. He was criticized for being ‘poll-driven’ and relying on public sentiment to govern. Who was it that provided Clinton with the poll data that he supposedly looked to? The same individuals who would have provided the data if he were campaigning—professional political consultants. While presidents have supplemented their advisory network with political consultants since the Nixon administration, it was the Clinton White House that raised the bar in terms of looking to outside consultants for advice (Tenpas, 2000). At different times during his presidency, Clinton sought advice from campaign consultants including Dick Morris, Paul Begala, James Carville, Mandy Grunwald, Stan Greenberg, Bob Squire, Hank Sheinkopf, Marcus Penczer and Mark Penn (Tenpas, 2000).

The relevant piece of the puzzle here is that when presidents have looked to political consultants for advice, they have not been on the official White House payroll. Instead, their paychecks have been signed by someone at the national party headquarters. With regard to exactly how much the DNC or the RNC has spent on consultants who served as advisors to presidents, Tenpas (2000) provides some startling estimates. For instance, by combing through reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Tenpas (2000: 115) estimates that the RNC spent roughly $2 million annually on polling for President Reagan, and that the DNC spent $1 million and $2.5 million on pollsters for presidents Carter and Clinton, respectively. Moreover, Tenpas (2000: 114) shows that ‘[i]n 1995 the salaries for President Clinton’s fifteen most senior White House staff members totaled $1.8 million’ but that ‘[d]uring that same year, the DNC spent over $2.9 million’ on seven consulting firms that conducted polling and helped design media campaigns for the White House. Parties in Congress also look to pollsters and other consultants for assistance, whether it be to provide reelection advice or to help shape and sell policy solutions (Jacobs and Shapiro, 2000; Lipinski, 2001; Dulio and Medvic, 2003).

Whether President Clinton was ‘poll-driven’ when he made decisions about the policy direction his administration would take is beyond the scope of this chapter. What is important here is that elected public officials and political parties have begun to use techniques and tactics in their governing strategies that are normally associated with campaigning. Polling has obviously been used by both parties in the White House and in Congress, but it goes beyond this one service to earned media (i.e., press relations) and paid media (i.e., television advertisements) strategies. For instance, the Clinton administration broke new ground in this respect when it ran television ads during the budget battle of 1996 to try to build public support for the President’s plan. And it is the professional political consultant who provides these services. After all, as Dick Morris (1999: 75) has said, ‘Each day is election day in modern America.’

The Future of the Party-Consultant Relationship

Political consultants and political parties currently have a strong and close relationship, as indicated by the fact that parties have hired consultants in the past to provide services for their own purposes and for those services demanded by their clients, and that parties recommend consultants to their candidates looking for a specific kind of campaign assistance. For a number of reasons, this relationship is only likely to get stronger in the future. First, consultants are here to stay as a means of providing technically sophisticated electioneering services. Given the candidate-centered nature of campaigns in the United States, candidates will continue to build their own campaign organizations that will be dominated by outside professionals. More importantly, however, the consultant-party relationship will very likely be affected in the future by the rules and regulations concerning how campaigns are run, and specifically the rules about how money can be raised and spent in campaigns.

The regulations pertaining to how money can be raised and spent in campaigns have impacted consultants’ influence in elections in the past. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and its amendments in the early 1970s helped lay the groundwork for consultant influence at that time. ‘These reforms set the stage for [political action committees] to become the major organized financiers of election campaigns and drove candidates to rely upon professional campaign consultants to design direct mail fund-raising operations’ rather than look to the party for fundraising help (Herrnson, 1988: 28). The party-consultants relationship will also likely be affected by more recent reforms relating to how money is raised and spent in elections.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) will dictate how candidates and parties raise money in campaigns well into the future. The most important aspect of the law for the purposes of this discussion is that which makes raising and spending of so-called soft money by the national political parties illegal. These were dollars that could be raised and spent in an unlimited manner and did not fall under the disclosure requirements of the previous regulations. The relevant point here is that the BCRA takes away a major financing avenue that both major parties used very effectively in the election cycles of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In short, political parties have one less avenue for providing funds to their candidates.

In light of this, the consultant-party relationship may get even closer in election cycles to come. The BCRA may have created another void in party power that consultants can step in to fill. While the BCRA makes it illegal for national parties to raise and spend soft money the law says nothing about non-profit or ‘issue groups’ doing the same. As some observers have already noticed, these groups ‘could not be run by party committees or candidates, but could be run by their former employees’ (Dart, 2002: 14A). And as outlined above, large numbers of current political consultants are former party employees. Furthermore, the rules written by the Federal Election Commission interpret the law to apply to the ‘agents’ of parties and candidates as well as the parties and candidates themselves. However, political consultants are not included in the regulations as being agents of parties or candidates. This may create a scenario where political consultants establish new fundraising entities that can raise and spend the dollars that political parties now may not. Incidents of this kind of behavior are already evident. During the 2004 election cycle, the first to be governed by the new BCRA rules, several new funding and electioneering entities were launched to make up for the loss of soft money at the national party headquarters. These new groups were typically established as so-called 527 groups -groups that, because of their tax status, do not have to register or report to the Federal Election Commission, and are able to raise and spend money in unlimited and unregulated amounts. Many of the most prominent 527 groups in 2004, such as America Coming Together, The Media Fund, and Progress for America, had political consultants, former party operatives, or campaign advisors leading them. Thus, the same kind of changing environment that brought consultants and parties close together in the past may be appearing in the current electoral context and may mean an even more intimate relationship between these two important electoral actors.

In short, the relationship that political parties have with political consultants is an important one that can be beneficial to both actors. Political consultants can cultivate and maintain a business relationship and political parties are assisted in working toward their main goal of capturing and holding seats in government. This relationship is one that has been driven not by consultants trying to push parties to the side of the campaigning process, but by changes in the electioneering landscape that created a demand for the services they provide. In turn, consultants filled a void that was left by parties (Dulio, 2004). ‘If candidates and issue groups believed that their electoral needs could be entirely served by political parties, then there would be no market for a bevy of outside … political consultants’ (Kolodny 2000a: 110).

Today, consultants and parties both see a division of labor in terms of the electioneering services that are best performed by each actor. They both describe outside consultants as being better equipped to provide the services geared toward message creation and delivery (e.g., television ad production, direct mail creation, and polling) and parties as better equipped to provide services that require more staff time and resources (e.g., get-out-the-vote, opposition research, and fundraising). There is also evidence of a ‘party network’ in that party headquarters are a major training ground for private consultants, and that parties look to these consultants for help more than those who have no prior history with the party organization.

The party-consultant connection does not end on election day, however. Consultants are looked to for campaign advice between campaigns as part of the obvious aspect of the ‘permanent campaign,’ but they are also turned to by the White House and the parties in Congress for advice in battles over policy alternatives, as evidenced by the presence of numerous campaign consultants in the Clinton White House. President George W. Bush has only continued this trend. This important relationship is only likely to get stronger in the wake of recent campaign reforms that may create a changing electoral environment that once again produces a void that consultants will step in to fill. No matter what the future campaign landscape brings, however, political consultants will inevitably be part of the picture, working alongside parties to help them win elections.