my interest in the political consulting industry began in 2005 as I was writing an essay on political entrepreneurship in American politics. Political consultants, it seemed to me, were political entrepreneurs in two senses. Consultants were literally entrepreneurs in the sense that they were engaged in a speculative search for profit. After all, political consulting is a business. In a second sense, however, political consultants were entrepreneurial as they creatively combined scientific polling, artful media, and local political knowledge into winning campaign messages and strategies.
Moreover, the business of political consulting struck me as emblematic of an increasingly entrepreneurial style in American politics. Over the past century, presidents, individual members of Congress, and a myriad of organizations and interests have pursued opportunities that expand their scope for independent action. Political consultants are central to this process as well, whether helping in the pursuit of a White House agenda, nurturing a congressional career, or carving out a niche within the panoply of Washington groups. If the entrepreneurial pursuit of political advantage is now a characteristic feature of our politics, I began to wonder how political consulting became a business and how the business of consulting contributed to a broader transformation in American democracy.
In my search for answers to these questions, I found myself increasingly interested in the practitioners I discovered along the way. Well before the term “political consultant” came into use, others were attempting to sell their wares to various candidates and causes. Operating under different names, such as publicity experts or counsels on public relations, these would-be consultants developed tools and techniques during the first three quarters of the twentieth century we associate now with the modern business of politics. Connecting these early practitioners with the multi-billion-dollar industry that exists today led me to realize that political work—that is, the work people do in order to elicit the support or influence the views of the public—changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.
Consequently, this book is largely about the changing character of political work and the rise of a consulting industry that now controls most of that work. The business of politics is central to the media-intensive, issue-based politics we witness today, and its rise into a multi-billion-dollar industry contributes to an ongoing, almost daily search for political advantage. Through their control of political work, consultants occupy a critical position between the public and those who endeavor to represent them, profoundly shaping the character of democratic practice.
Acknowledging intellectual debts is an important element in academic work, and I have accrued many in the writing of this book. Close readers of the endnotes will be able to trace various influences, but I wish to acknowledge here (in alphabetical order) the scholarship of Andrew Abbott, Richard Bensel, Stuart Ewen, Daniel Galvin, David Greenberg, Matt Grossmann, Alexander Heard, Sarah Igo, Stanley Kelley, Daniel Kreiss, Mordecai Lee, Michael McGerr, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Larry Sabato, and Edward Walker, among other scholars past and present, for helping me focus my attention on the changing nature of political work and its consequences for American politics.
Parts of chapter 2 and chapter 3 appeared in “Publicity and the Progressive Era Origins of Modern Politics,” Critical Review 19 (2007): 461—480 and “Creating Political Strategy, Controlling Political Work: Edward Bernays and the Emergence of the Political Consultant,” in Political Creativity: Reconfiguring Institutional Order and Change, edited by Gerald Berk, Victoria Hattam, and Dennis
Galvan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 146—166. I thank the publishers for permission to reprint portions of this previous work here.
Much of the research for this book relied on archival materials at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Eisenhower Presidential Library, and the California State Archives, among others. I am grateful to the staff at these institutions. I am also extremely grateful to Jason Bucelato at the Federal Election Commission for helping me locate the audio recordings, minutes, and agenda documents for the August 31, 1978, open meeting of the commission that discussed the rules establishing categories of legal campaign services. The material in this book also relies heavily on two sets of interviews, conducted in the 1970s and 1990s, with political consultants. I gratefully acknowledge the help of Larry Sabato, Kenneth Stroupe, and Alex Welch at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, as well as Jennifer Kinniff at the Special Collections Research Center of the George Washington University Libraries for making these resources available. Finally, this book makes use of figures on campaign expenditures for consulting services. Much of these data I collected and analyzed myself (as explained in the appendix). In addition, I thank Andrew Mayersohn at the Center for Responsive Politics, who provided key data on expenditures coded by function. I also thank Gregory Martin and Zachary Peskowitz for sharing their data on consulting expenditures.
Friends and colleagues have provided valuable advice on aspects of the research, as well as needed encouragement to complete the project. I especially thank Brian Balogh, Gerald Berk, Mark Blyth, Christy Ford Chapin, Jeffrey Friedman, David Greenberg, Matt Grossmann, David Karol, Robert Mickey, and Steven Teles. I also gratefully acknowledge The William and Flora Hewitt Foundation for providing critical support at the final stages of the project. I thank David McBride for his help and encouragement in bringing the book to press.
Finally, I owe an enormous debt to my family, especially Marisa Hughes Sheingate, Leo Sheingate, and Lila Sheingate, who excused my frequent absences—especially when I was at home.
Building a Business of Politics