The Business of Politics

ten miles from Baltimore’s inner harbor, located in a low-rise office building in Towson, Maryland, is a successful business few Americans know about. Mentzer Media Services is one of the leading political consulting firms in the country. Mentzer Media does not design or produce the ubiquitous advertisements we see on television. Instead, the company specializes in the strategic placement of campaign commercials by purchasing airtime on behalf of its many clients, deciding where and when (and how often) an ad should run. Time-buying is a critical component of modern campaign strategy. It is also a highly profitable one. According to the company’s website, Mentzer Media has handled more than $1 billion in media buys.1 Assuming an industry-standard 10 to 15 percent commission on the ads it placed, Mentzer Media has earned between $100 and $150 million over the past several election cycles. In 2012 alone, Mentzer Media placed more than $245 million worth of ads, half of which were on behalf of Mitt Romney’s super PAC, Restore Our Future.2

Mentzer Media is just one of the many consulting firms that profited from the 2012 election. The top Democratic media firm, GMMB, handled $435 million in spending in 2012, 90 percent of which came from the Obama campaign.3 Together, thousands of candidates, the two major parties, and a myriad of wealthy outside groups spent over $6 billion trying to win office or sway the outcome of a race. More than half of this total, around $3.6 billion, went to consulting firms specializing in media, direct mail, and digital services.4 Although it is difficult to know precisely how much consultants earn in a given campaign cycle, the top firms in the industry appear to be doing quite well.5 In 2012, just fifty professional firms, averaging around $50 million in expenditures, handled 75 percent of all consulting services in federal campaigns. Between 2008 and 2012, revenues and billings by the top fifty consulting firms grew in real terms by 66 percent, about seven times the rate of growth in overall political spending during the same period.6 Much of this increase is due to the pronounced rise in independent expenditures by super PACs and other outside groups. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to more than $1 billion in outside spending in 2012—most of it on television advertising produced and placed by professional consultants.7 Even if the political consequences of the 2010 Court decision remain a matter of debate to some, the economic benefits of Citizens United to the consulting industry are crystal clear.

In fact, federal elections are only one potential source of revenue for political consultants. Between 2008 and 2012, for example, GMMB earned approximately $125 million in commissions from political advertisements.8 During the same period, according to the Center for Public Integrity, GMMB received an additional $124 million in fees from the telecommunications industry, beverage companies, and several other industry groups.9 According to one study of the political consulting business, firms typically earn less than 40 percent of revenues in an election year from federal races; the majority of income comes from a combination of state and local candidates, ballot initiatives, political parties, corporate clients, and overseas elections.10 On this basis, the political consulting industry earned an estimated $8.9 billion during the 2012 election cycle. Politics has become a thriving commercial enterprise.

The rise of a multi-billion-dollar business of politics marks a significant change in the conduct of campaigns and the character ofour democracy. Over the course of the twentieth century, the old style of political campaigns gave way to the media-intensive and candidate-focused electoral contests we know today. Whereas parties and candidates used to rely on a network of local operatives to rally the party faithful and manage the practical aspects of winning a race, most of the key decisions in contemporary campaigns are now in the hands of consultants who sell a variety of products and services such as media, polling, and direct mail to an array of causes and candidates. In the last hundred years, a modern political consulting industry took shape—and took control of American elections.

How did the consulting industry gain near-exclusive control over the provision of political services in American politics? More broadly, what are the consequences of this development for the functioning of American institutions, the role of money in politics, and the relationship between politicians and the public? This book answers these questions by examining changes in the practical work of political campaigns. Specifically, the book follows the emergence of a professional political class in the United States: the political consultants who plumb the public mind and craft the candidate’s message.

The story begins in the early twentieth century when campaigns began to place greater emphasis on the qualities of the candidate as a way to get out the vote. With the spread of radio and the advent of polling in the 1930s, experts in mass communication and survey research began turning social scientific renderings of the public into carefully crafted messages. These developments continued through the 1950s and 1960s as the growth of television provided a new medium to reach the public. However, with a few exceptions in places like California, the commercial opportunities from campaign work remained limited until the 1970s, when a full-blown business of politics finally emerged. Aided in part by new campaign finance rules, the pursuit of popular support came to rely almost exclusively on products and services that consultants alone could provide. Today, the business continues to evolve as consultants incorporate new techniques of digital politics and the industry consolidates into larger firms and multinational holding companies that offer an array of services to political and corporate clients.

Changes in the practical work of campaigns have had far-reaching consequences for American politics. The rise of a business of politics keyed other important developments such as the twentieth-century growth of presidential power and the political mobilization ofAmerican business. In our own time, the consulting industry is contributing to a broader shift toward a professionally managed public sphere while serving a crucial role in the system of campaign finance that allows wealthy donors to seek power and influence through legal (if lightly regulated) political contributions. In other words, political consultants are critical intermediaries in the democratic process, standing between the voters and those who endeavor to represent them. The definition of public problems, the framing of issues, and the formation of interests all rely on the services of a professional political class. This book traces how this came to pass.

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