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Have you ever wondered why some politicians seem to be eternally popular and others not? It could be because they are using political consulting firms.
But what are these mysterious and secretive entities? How do they operate, and who has used them in the past?
What Are Political Consulting Firms?
Political consulting firms are private agencies that political agents use to enhance their personal and political appeal. Their role is to provide managerial support and insight required by a candidate to appeal to voters. They highlight the aspects of their clients' personalities that electorates might not like and offer suggestions for what messages they should convey. In short, their purpose is to make political operative more effective vote winners using the research and marketing resources at their disposal.
Political consulting grew primarily out of regular public relations consulting. For years, celebrities and brands have required the assistance of professionals to provide them with strategies for interacting with the general public. Company bosses and famous entertainers needed experts who could show them how to present their case, build rapport with their audiences, and create rhetorical devices for selling otherwise unpopular ideas.
Politicians soon recognized that they, too, could benefit from these insights and began seeking the help of such agencies en masse to make their candidacies more popular among the general public. The in-depth research provided by these agencies often helped political actors develop winning strategies and hide flaws that people might find unattractive.
How Do Political Consulting Firms Operate?
While the precise nature of how political consulting firms operate is often shrouded in mystery, the overall intention is to promote the political platform of a particular candidate.
In general, operations fall into two distinct categories: those concerned with promoting the election of a political candidate, and those wanting to improve their broader appeal.
Consulting firms seeking to get a particular candidate elected engage in a range of activities designed to make their campaign more effective. Services could include things like mobilizing campaign staffers, seeking additional funds from untapped sources, creating press releases, and using marketing to communicate with voters on social media. The guiding principle is to use a set of proven techniques (many borrowed from the business world) to grab attention and encourage the electorate to lend a candidate their support.
Political consulting firms, however, can’t do the job of the candidate for them. While they can help marshal a successful campaign, the politician also needs to have an appealing persona. Even with the best electoral strategy in the world, candidates with dull personalities are unlikely to get far at the ballot box.
The other type of political consulting focuses on public relations. Often political actors use these services if they sense that their appeal is flagging while in office, or they want to create a personal brand they can sell to the public in the future. Political consulting firms, therefore, hire people with sales backgrounds and managerial experience to plug their clients. Again, public relations relies on press releases, marketing efforts, and carefully selected television interview appearances, designed to show off a candidate’s desirable traits.
Candidates Who Used Political Consulting Firms
So who has successfully used political consulting firms to win power?
The political consulting industry has had a massive impact both in the US and across the world. It is responsible for many victories.
A Washington DC-based political strategy firm led by Stephanie Cutter and Jen O’Malley Dillon, for instance, made substantial contributions to the 2008 Obama campaign, which saw the US elect its first-ever African-American president.
The Liberal Party of Canada hired the same firm in the 2015 Canadian presidential race, successfully convincing voters in the country to elect Justin Trudeau.
Political consulting firms are also responsible for a host of smaller victories among state and local candidates. For instance, a Republican political consulting firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the driving force behind the election of Todd Young for his Indiana Senate seat. Another firm based in Washington DC, led by Danny Diaz and Terry Nelson is responsible for showcasing Rob Portman’s results on the independent women and China issue.
Political consulting firms have also seen considerable success globally. Well-known political consultants like James Carville have traveled to other continents to provide their expertise to incumbent and budding leaders in the run-up to local elections.
Joseph Napolitan - a famous political consultant - went to France, Venezuela, and Costa Rica to impart his expertise to local candidates. Others like Dick Morris are responsible for the election of people like Fernando de la Rua in Argentina, Vicente Fox in Mexico, and Jorge Batlle in Uruguay.
Where And When Did Political Consulting Originate?
Most historians believe that political consulting probably originated just before William McKinley’s presidency in 1897. McKinley’s closest advisor was Mark Hanna - a politically astute man who seemed to have an intuition regarding the vicissitudes of public opinion in election cycles. He offered McKinley advice that some commentators believe helped him win the election.
The official first political consulting firm offering services that resemble their modern counterparts originated in California in the 1930s. Husband-and-wife team, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter began Campaigns Inc. - a firm that promised local candidates an edge in Californian regional races.
The first true, self-described political consultant was probably Joseph Napolitan. A story published in the New York Times in 1968, described him as the newest American phenomenon: a person who would take professional control of political campaigns.
The Popularity Of Political Consulting
In recent years, the use of political consulting has become near-universal. Practically all political candidates rely on a team of people to give them advice and strategies that will get them elected to office. Even people now in office use them.
While candidates who spend the most money on these services aren’t guaranteed to win, the evidence collected to date suggests that it does improve their odds substantially. Political consulting firms give candidates the managerial skills they need for a robust ground game. It will likely be some time before political consulting reaches its zenith.