Political Consultants Have Never Been Richer, But Are They Endangered?

These are flush times for the political consulting industry, as Citizens United allowed billions of new dollars to pour into every political campaign, with spending seemingly going nowhere but up. In a lot of cases, you'll have campaigns spending millions, while outside groups on both sides come in and spend millions more. In the end, they often all fight to a draw, their efforts cancelling each other out, with the final result being pretty much what it would have been if there had been almost no spending at all. And who really wins? The consultants, of course. So how long can they keep this game going?

Lee Aitken of the Shorenstein Center has a new report urging journalists to pay more attention to where all this money is really going, and she highlights one remarkable figure. There was $6 billion spent on campaigns in 2012, but that's only part of the story:

So who pocketed all that cash? Most of it went for ads on TV, radio and the Internet, of course; media buys are the biggest expense in any election. But Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks broadcast spending, puts the 2012 total for all media at roughly $5 billion, which left another one billion at the disposal of the "campaign industrial complex"—that standing army of consultants, pollsters, mailers, data gurus and field organizers.

The most obvious response to this may be, who cares? If the Koch brothers want to flush a few hundred million dollars down the toilet by giving it all to a bunch of charlatan consultants who charge them through the roof for their crappy advice, nobody really gets hurt. On the other hand, the ever-increasing cost of running for office makes it difficult for struggling candidates, like the guy who wants to run for state representative, to make a real go of it.

So let me make a crazy prediction that might not actually come true: This gold rush could be the last gasp of the political consulting industry. Or if not the last gasp, at least the herald of a major transition.

I say that because it's getting less and less credible for consultants to claim that their strategic insights are so rare and valuable that no candidate can do without them. Hell, a million people on cable news and the Internet have opinions about how every campaign should be run, and they can't all be wrong. And when it comes to the practical, day-to-day requirements, that stuff is becoming more open-source as well. If I were running for office, and some fancy-pants media consultant told me I needed to pay him ungodly sums because of his experience and acumen, I'd be tempted to tell him to shove it, come up with ad scripts by talking to some of my smart friends, then have my nephew shoot them with his video camera (or even on his phone, for pete's sake), and edit them with iMovie or some such. The tools available to anyone these days are of such high quality and such low cost—and getting better and cheaper all the time—that you can make perfectly good video without having a professional do it for you. I have media consultant friends who might not like to hear that, but it's true, and it'll be more true next year, and the year after that.

A lot of the knowledge and means necessary to run a campaign are acquired with the help of consultants in large part because it's just easier that way—they're the ones who have dealt with the list vendors, who have printers who can print the brochures, and so on. But it's not impossible to do much of it yourself. I don't know how many candidates have tried it, but with a relatively small staff and some creative thinking you could bootstrap an entire campaign with no consultants that would miss out on nothing but paying the commissions (here's a story from a recent Prospect issue about someone who's trying to make that easier to do). If I were in the consulting business, I'd be very worried about how viable my industry will be in five years, as the knowledge and tools become more easily available. And I guess I'd want to make as much money as I could while the getting was good.

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