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Business of Politics Has Matured, Specialized

Imagine Karl Rove driving President Bush to events, answering phones, manning the copy machine — even cleaning the toilets if the janitor is sick — and oh yeah, running his campaign as well.

That is exactly how it was for political consultants in the beginning, according to long-time advisers who have watched the business grow from a handful of part-timers and activists helping out friends into a professional cadre of highly paid and highly specialized experts bidding out their services to whoever can afford them.

“We were a jack of all trades,” said Joe Cerrell of Cerrell Associates Inc., a Democratic firm in Los Angeles. “We used to be lawyers, students, activists and public relations people who worked on a campaign and then went back to what we were doing. When I got into it there was no such thing as a political consultant; it’s turned into an actual occupation and profession.”

The first race Cerrell ever worked on was a 1954 California state Assembly contest in which his victorious candidate spent a mere $5,400, he said.

No longer.

Some state legislative races can cost as much as Congressional contests, and even school board or city council bids are often conducted with professional help these days.

That is a product of the amount of money pouring into campaigns and the high stakes, said longtime GOP consultant Lance Tarrance, who founded The Tarrance Group in Alexandria, Va.

“There’s no second place in American politics,” Tarrance said. “Why are baseball players paid so much? Because they get TV contracts … the amount of money people want to spend on politics these days is extraordinary,” he added. “When you have so much disposable income … it’s simply market demand.”

And the demand now is for polls, speciality consultants and innovative technology, members of the old-guard agree.

Candidates used to hire a general consultant who mapped out the budget and strategy and then in turn hired the specialists. Now the idea of a general consultant is all but dead, and specialists are in control.

“They’re driving the show; we’re spending more time on tactics than strategy,” Tarrance said.

The proliferation of consultants through the years can be seen in the rising membership of the American Association of Political Consultants.

The organization started with about 35 men in 1969, according to its founders. Now it boasts more than 1,000 members.

“If you take just media consultants, back in 1970 you probably could have named them all on one hand,” said Jim Duffy of the well-established Democratic firm Strother, Duffy, Strother. “Today there are just a lot more firms and individuals who are in this particular line of consulting.”

The division and subdivision in the work is almost impossible to keep track of, Duffy said.

Now there are consultants who focus solely on issue positioning, opposition research, speech coaching, direct mail, grass roots or fundraisers who only pitch political action committees or those who deal only in on-the-ground fundraising, Duffy said.

“As politics has become kind of an industry and as the fundraising became more sophisticated and more specialized, then you had more money to spend and then specialization followed that,” he said.

The same has held true on the technology front.

For example, “in the phone business, you’re not just after the number anymore,” Duffy said. “Now you want all the data that goes along with it” such as where exactly the voter lives, how much money she makes and what issues motivate her.

“By polling you can break it out and target it,” he said. “Technology is driving a lot of it, it’s so easy to have all this information aggregated now.”

Polling and polls have also changed, Tarrance noted. Polls have become commodities in themselves instead of a tool to help consultants analyze voters and trends.

“It used to be the beginning of the process of analysis,” Tarrance said. “Now the pollster comes in, delivers the poll and leaves,” he said. “There is less direct work with the campaign.”

Newspapers, public relations firms and party committees all have their own pollsters, and polls are released continuously instead of only in campaign years.

And, of course, politicians have become more dependent on polling, consultants agree.

“Because of the authority pollsters now have with candidates, they can dictate their poll questions be transferred to video,” Raymond Strother of Strother, Duffy, Strother wrote in his book 2003 book “Falling Up.”

“Politicians are so wed to polling that some of the most intuitive and creative consultants — Dick Morris and Frank Luntz — actually act as pollsters in order to sound more authoritative to their prospective candidates,” Strother wrote. “In truth, the genius of both Morris and Luntz is their ear for language that will move voters, not their polling.”

The business of campaigns and consulting has also become more centralized, consultants agree.

It used to be that people started on local or state races, built up a reputation and string of wins and then moved on to bigger campaigns. Many also stayed in their states and lived where they pleased.

Now if a consultant wants to break through he has to come to Washington, D.C., open his office here and only later move back out — but that also enables people to build reputations more quickly.

“Now someone who has never run a campaign can become very prominent,” said Ed Rollins, who managed then-President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, among many others.

Mary Matalin is a good example of that, Rollins said.

“She was a hairdresser. She came to Washington, worked in various roles for the Republican National Committee, did some work for the [legendary] Lee Atwater,” and became famous “when in reality she hadn’t run campaigns.”

Strother said the rising importance of pollsters is responsible for the phenomenon that Rollins described.

“Pollsters have made it possible for people to come out of the party bureaucracy and set up consultant shops,” he wrote. “Young people who are little more than receptionists in other consulting firms hang out a shingle. If they can scream loudly, adopt some quirks, never argue with pollsters, and kiss enough asses of bureaucrats who will recommend them, they can prosper.”

Consulting as a growth industry can also create a “buyer beware” situation, as there is no restriction on who can call himself a consultant, older professionals warned.

“People suck you into a campaign all the time, you get some of these consultants, maybe you call them charlatans, who just want the business,” Cerrell said.

To be a political consultant, “you just have to say you are one and if you win, I guess that establishes the fact that you have credentials,” said Walt DeVries, a retired GOP consultant and founding AAPC member.

Consultants are not licensed or regulated, no one can sanction them for ethical violations and quantifying their abilities or trustworthiness can really be done only through word of mouth.

DeVries was involved when the AAPC wrote its code of ethics but it has no force of law and has not been updated because association members cannot reach consensus, he said.

“I think the whole philosophy of consulting has also changed,” DeVries said. “There was less emphasis on winning at any cost. I think in a sense it was much more ethical, there were things you just wouldn’t do. Now there’s practically nothing they wouldn’t do to win. The people have changed.”

One big change that almost no one seems to think is for the better is the notion of political consultants as superstars.

“It’s kind of a bad thing,” Rollins said. “Sometimes the profile gets to be a little too big and too important, and you can pay a price for it.

“I call a press conference and 30 reporters show up,” he said. “My candidate calls one and no one shows up, they don’t like that. … In the end you are a staff person, you are behind the lines. At the end of the day people vote for the candidate. I’ve never seen them vote for the consultant.”

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