News & Views from 465 California Street

Political Consultants

Clint Reilly

For two decades I was a political consultant. I managed campaigns for many of California’s most powerful politicians – Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Treasurer Kathleen Brown to cite a few brand names. I left the profession twelve years ago. When I became a consultant in the early 1970’s, it was nearly impossible to be consistently employed in campaigns and even harder to earn a living. At that time, running for office was cheap. The year-round 24/ 7 election cycle had not yet been invented. By the time I exited the profession in 1995, campaigns had become big business. An explosion of spending completely changed political consulting.

During the 1980’s the amount of money spent on both sports and campaigns grew exponentially. In professional sports, huge television contracts created a cascade of new revenue. In politics, lobbyists and special interest groups injected hundreds of millions into campaigns. Lucrative television contracts radically changed the economics of the National Football League. In professional sports the stakes and the competition demanded that players receive the best possible coaching to win. This new money made possible the advent of specialization in coaching – breaking the game into its incremental parts and hiring an expert to maximize the potential of every position. Like the NFL, the money flowing into the political process created a new class of professionals to manage campaigns. Today media consultants create the 30-second television commercials which dominate politics at the end of each election. Direct mail gurus hammer the mail boxes with repetitive print broadsides. Pollsters calibrate the messages that come out of the mouths of candidates. Fundraisers specialize in finding the money that fuels campaigns and careers. Organizers stimulate or simulate grass roots support by either motivating real people to get involved or hiring a staff to act as paid volunteers. These are the gurus who call the shots on political advertising.

Political campaign advertising has exploded into a billion dollar industry. The presidential race in 2008 alone could cost nearly one billion. That’s why Democratic contenders like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already raised over a hundred million dollars between them.

The television industry expects record revenues from politics in 2008. The post office is gearing up for historic waves of campaign mail. The billboard industry will plaster the faces of incumbent and aspiring leaders across the nation. Newspapers will retain their ability to set the agenda of campaigns via their news coverage. But political consultants will nix newspapers as an effective ad medium for their clients. Why? Are not newspapers read by the most informed and involved citizens in the nation?

As an ad medium for politics, newspapers are largely irrelevant. In recent years, commercial advertisers have deserted newspapers in such stark numbers that the very existence of many newspapers is now in doubt. But political gurus have shunned newspapers for the last forty years for the same reasons that commercial advertisers are now turning away. The computer has made it possible to focus highly relevant messages right at individual consumers and voters. Direct mail, the Internet, computer phones and other media allow advertisers to locate and communicate with individual consumers by tailoring messages that speak to their unique concerns. Newspapers send the same newspaper with the same ads to every person. The one-size-fits-all newspaper is an advertising dinosaur. Ironically, the Internet version of the daily newspaper is a Trojan Horse that creates a powerful advertising platform for multimedia targeting of television commercials, radio spots and tailored print ads to a local audience. Television and radio initiated the decline of newspapers. The computer hastened it. Ironically, it may be the Internet that restores newspapers to their former glory – or at least enables newspapers to maintain their critical role in our democracy.

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