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Who’s pulling the strings on the election?

The rise of political consultants

Created date

November 7th, 2016
(L-R) Mary Matalin, who worked for both Bush presidents; James Carville, lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s campaigns; and Alex Castellanos, once a prominent Republican strategist.

(L-R) Mary Matalin, who worked for both Bush presidents; James Carville, lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s campaigns; and Alex Castellanos, once a prominent Republican strategist.

On November 8, the nation will release a collective sigh of relief. Regardless of who wins or who loses, the long, ruthless slog of the 2016 campaign will be over. The robocalls, the daily emails, the postcards and the constant bickering on TV will suddenly stop. We will be free to turn our attention to less contentious battles such as those played out on football fields or basketball courts.

The average American probably won’t think about who to vote for until 2018, but for some, the campaign never ends. The people behind the scenes, the campaign managers, the media consultants, the polling wizards, and the expert fundraisers will take a month or two off before starting the process of getting their clients into office all over again.

That process, as detailed in Dennis W. Johnson’s new book, Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting (Oxford University Press), is far more complex than you might think. Long ago, before national polls, slickly produced television ads, and 24-hour news channels, people voted for the candidate with the best character or the candidate with whom they agreed on the issues. 

Johnson, professor emeritus of political management at George Washington University, points out that today people often vote for the candidate with the best campaign team. Today, the team that most skillfully presents their candidate’s strengths while even more skillfully highlighting the opposition’s weaknesses will be the likely winner. 

Birth of a profession

Up until the early 1930s, party bosses pulled the campaign strings. That began to change in 1934 when the husband and wife publicity team of Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker involved themselves in the California gubernatorial campaign. Their client was George Hatfield, a Republican seeking the office of lieutenant governor, but their efforts were directed at the Democrat running for the governor’s office, Upton Sinclair.  

Sinclair was a well-known muckraker, and Baxter and Whitaker’s strategy was to use his own words against him. They pored through Sinclair’s politically charged writing and even his novels, taking phrases out of context, then editing them to make them seem more radical. 

Pamphlets quoted Sinclair calling every religion “a mighty fortress of graft” and saying, “wedded bliss was nothing more than ‘marriage plus prostitution.’”

Baxter and Whitaker succeeded. The Republican ticket won. “Upton was beaten because he had written books,” was Whitaker’s assessment of the campaign.


From that inauspicious start came an entire industry of paid experts. While Baxter and Whitaker operated on instinct and a keen understanding of how voters would react, today’s kingmakers are driven by data derived from scientifically conducted polls. 

Before the early 1960s, few candidates enlisted the services of private pollsters. That changed when 36-year-old Lew Harris went to work for John F. Kennedy. 

Johnson credits Harris with changing the way campaigns operated. “The Kennedy campaign adopted two innovations suggested by Harris: to poll in separate states rather than undertaking national surveys and to integrate polling research into the campaign’s strategic considerations.” 

Despite the fact that Harris’s innovative approach to polling helped Kennedy win the White House, survey research did not become an integral part of political campaigns for another decade. 

Today, it seems hardly a move is made without a stack of polling research to back it up. 

With advances in technology, polls that once took weeks to tabulate and assess, now take a few days or less. Socioeconomic data on neighborhoods and information gleaned through social media allows candidates to precisely target potential supporters and craft individualized messages designed to appeal to specific groups. 

The price

There are 537 federal elections, including the House, the Senate, and the White House. The U.S. census counts more than 87,000 local and state governments constituting more than 511,000 popularly elected offices. Many of those are for two-year terms, so it all adds up to over one million elections in a four-year cycle. 

While a gubernatorial campaign might spend $10 million, even a relatively small local campaign could reasonably expect to spend $50,000. 

In 2012, candidates, political parties, and outside interest groups spent an estimated $7 billion to garner voters’ support. The cost of the 2016 race is still being tallied, but it will surely top the amount spent in the last election cycle. 

While campaign experts have become an integral part of the process, Johnson points out that the general public has little regard for the profession. A 1989 poll showed that only 34% of the public has a favorable view of political consultants. 

While some of these “image makers” such as James Carville and Mary Matalin have become well-known television fixtures, the vast majority of political consultants remain strictly behind the scenes. In 600 pages, Johnson offers a unique look into the mostly unknown world that not only shapes elections but ultimately the nation as a whole.