The business of politics is a billion-dollar industry

Consultants have replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power, gained not by votes but by money.

THE KANSAS CITY STARDecember 15, 2013 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - On July 14, a Sunday, Jeff Roe picked up the phone.

The high-profile political consultant had worked quietly with Kansas City's business elite for weeks on a nervy plan to pay for breakthrough medical research.

One not-so-small hurdle stood in the way. The corner office guys needed to persuade Jackson County's voters, in just 90 days, to support a half-cent sales tax hike for something called translational medicine.

It was doable, Roe told them. An early poll suggested support for the concept, but he'd need $1 million for a successful campaign. They didn't blink.

So he started calling other consultants. Video makers and media buyers. A pollster. Public relations specialists. Graphic artists and direct mail wizards.

The political industrial complex rumbled to life.

Across America, the business of politics now channels up to $10 billion a year - much of it pocketed by the pros who conduct the polls, craft the ads, buy the airtime, spin the news releases.

They flourish at the intersection of democracy and capitalism, their influence both obscure and undeniable. And a growing number of critics claim the industry is a profit-first enterprise that can sully public discourse:

• Political professionals engineer often brutal campaigns that, win or lose, leave ever-shrinking room for compromise after Election Day.

• The consultant class cranks up the importance of money in campaigns that, win or lose, expand the influence donors hold over public policy - and may increase public cynicism about government.

• And eventually the techniques of winning campaigns can leak into government itself, distorting messages and handing authority to nonelected consultants.

"The consultant class has made campaigns more negative, more destructive and less filled with ideas," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich in an interview. "It's bad for the system of the country."

Writes Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard: "No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting."

Consultants fiercely resist the criticism. Their job, they insist, isn't to create division and dysfunction, but to listen to candidates and voters.

That's the only way to win, which is the only thing that matters.

"Anytime I lose a race, I pay a penalty, whether it's lost business or lost reputation," Roe said. "When you win, you're a genius. When you lose, you're an idiot."

ROE CERTAINLY KNOWS HOW TO WIN

He launched his political career in the mid-1990s as a little-known assistant to Republican Sam Graves, then a member of the Missouri legislature. A decade later, after helping Graves move to the U.S. House, Roe formed Axiom Strategies, dedicated to electing conservatives across the country.

In just a few years, Roe was working with GOP presidential candidates, House members and dozens of other campaigns, both in partisan races and ballot issues.

His campaign tactics were rarely subtle. His print and TV ads, like so many today, sometimes stretched facts. He became a legend for dispatching aides to ambush opposition candidates, ordered to capture unflattering photos.

In 2008, an ad accused House candidate Kay Barnes of holding "San Francisco values," a thinly disguised criticism of her support from and for gays and lesbians.

At the time, some called the ad irrelevant - what did San Francisco have to do, they asked, with Social Security reform or tax policy?

But it worked. And it may reflect a common trend in other campaigns across the nation, a trend that critics say damages government.

Campaigns aren't always negative, they say, just empty.

In 2010, Todd Tiahrt, then a congressman from Kansas, lost a bitter U.S. Senate primary to then-congressman Jerry Moran.

The candidates basically agreed on overall immigration policy, but they waged a furious TV battle with ads that focused on the most minor of differences between the two. Their consultants decided to make immigration a wedge issue, a way to drive the two Republicans apart.

Today, Tiahrt says consultants "warp" elections.

"Their advice is based on polling data ... and fear," he said. "The results drag elections to the lowest common denominator and yield timid elected officials afraid of helping their constituents."

The modern marriage of nasty campaign tactics with a well-funded, professional political consulting and media industry dates to the 1930s. That's when two former journalists joined forces to form a company called Campaigns Inc., in California.

The firm's key insight: Mass-marketing politicians can be enormously lucrative.

Its success quickly helped extend the reach of the political industry across American government. By the 1960s, broadcast ads were married with ever more precise polling and focus groups. Political messages were tested, refined, changed. Candidates in major races added video experts to their teams.

Consultants quickly grew in stature, often becoming as well-known as their clients. Roger Ailes helped package Richard Nixon's first successful presidential campaign, work memorialized in the book "The Selling of the President 1968."

Other famous consultants followed - Lee Atwater, Ed Rollins, James Carville, Dick Morris, Karl Rove. Their names were often better known than the candidates they served.

Today, hiring a prominent consultant can signal to the folks bankrolling election fights that a campaign is worth backing. It tells party brass that a candidate impressed the pros. It ties a campaign into a network that shares the latest talking points, databases and technical know-how.

"The parties have outsourced much of the technical expertise to their respective consultant classes," said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College who has researched the role of political consultants.

They're increasingly seen, and often see themselves, as the people who vet candidates early in a campaign.

Now more than 3,000 political consulting firms across the country, by some estimates, run everything from school bond elections to presidential campaigns. They're networked to hundreds of polling firms, media buyers, ad production houses, direct mail specialists, fundraising advisers, phone bank operators and other businesses related to electing candidates.

In short, the political industrial complex.

NOT ALWAYS A WINNER

But a well-run campaign doesn't always yield a well-run government.

"In order to win, the first thing a consultant will say is, 'We've got to move to the left or the right,' " said David Rehr, who teaches political consulting at George Washington University. "But let's say you're in a primary ... and you're almost equal on those ideological issues. Then I tell you as a consultant: 'Find an issue where you can be even more conservative. Or more liberal.' "

That, in turn, makes eventual lawmaking much more difficult.

After candidates move to the edges, the middle is harder to find, Sunlight's Allison said.

Few Democrats can win primary elections while talking about cutting back Medicare benefits, he pointed out. Even fewer Republicans can win their party's nomination talking about higher taxes.

"Politicians today, with the help of consultants, have become very artful at promising everything without asking anything," he said. "When was the last time you heard a politician talk about our duty as citizens to do anything? Pollsters will tell you that doesn't sell to voters."

Confined to elections, the political industrial complex might be worrisome. But some critics see it moving beyond campaigns to infect government - turning every policy decision into a poll-tested political judgment at the expense of compromise and quality legislation.

"As the campaign methods and tactics introduced by consultants gain favor with relevant political actors, lawmaking begins to take on the outward trappings of a modern campaign, complete with daily polls, mass media blitzes and staged public relations events," wrote former congressional aide Doug Lathrop in "The Campaign Continues."

"Many elements of campaigns," he added, "are antithetical to governing." The U.S. House repeatedly has passed legislation repealing all or part of the new health care law - an effort doomed to failure because Democrats control the Senate.

In November, the Senate passed legislation barring discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender workers. It has little chance of even coming to a vote in the Republican House.

Both moves made core supporters happy. They're unlikely ever to become law, but they're something - symbolic, to be sure - to clobber the other side with in the next election.

In the mid-1990s, consultants and strategists helped Republicans draft the Contract with America, a set of poll-tested policy positions that helped the GOP win control of the House.

President Bill Clinton responded with his own consultant, Dick Morris, who advised a series of incremental policy choices that he believed voters would support. Clinton took the advice - and won re-election comfortably. (Morris is one of the rare modern-day operatives who has made money tailoring messages for both Republicans and Democrats.)

Many consultants acknowledge they maintain contact with their clients long after Election Day.

"Since time immemorial, politicians have held their fingers to the wind. That's what they do," said Martin Hamburger, a media consultant whose clients include Sly James and former congressman Dennis Moore. "In the governing period, we help quantify the choices in front of them with data" - polls.

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