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Tracking the rise of the political consultants

SHOWCASE | October 14, 2006

In a helpful bit of journalism, the Center for Public Integrity reports that some 600 political consultants got paid $1.78 billion by candidates for election in 2004. A lot of it went to TV ads—but there was a lot left over, also.

By Nick Schwellenbach

About half of campaign spending in the 2004 election season went to political consultants, the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity found in an investigation of the rapidly growing and influential sector. The flow of money to consultants, especially ones that handle media, has played a major role in escalating the cost of campaigns and is little-explored territory for journalists.

A relatively small coterie of consultants—600—received $1.78 billion, the vast majority of campaign spending that went to consultants. The Center profiles several of the most prominent consultants from 2003-04 and has created a database of consultants that can be browsed or searched.

About two-thirds of the consultants’ fees, $1.2 billion, went to buy television ads. Consultants usually charge a 15 percent commission, payments not disclosed in Federal Election Commission reports, the Center notes. Media consultants routinely help decide the issues, shape messages, and play a key role in deciding when campaigns will turn negative.

There has been an eleven-fold increase in the cost of campaigns in the thirty years since 1976. One result is a growing perception that, with the high level of contributions needed for such expensive campaigns, politicians are bought and paid for by special interests; another is the creation of a higher hurdle for challengers. (During the same 30 years, the cost of living has increased by a factor of three.)

On average, according to CPI figures, winning campaigns spent $1 million for House races and $7 million for Senate ones in 2004.  In 1976, winners "spent $87,000 to run for the House and $609,000 for the Senate," the Center's Sandy Bergo writes, citing a Congressional Research Service report.

Joe Trippi, the manager and consultant for Howard Dean's presidential bid, compares the increasing spending on consultants by campaigns to a nuclear arms race. "No one's willing to unilaterally disarm."

Consultants often recommend sophisticated polling, voter identification, and message-shaping services. But placing ads tends to be their specialty, and that, according to Cathy Allen, consultant and board member of the American Association of Political Consultants, is "the[ir] dirty little secret.” The perceived need for ads further weds campaigns to consultants, and may result in campaigns purchasing more advertising than they had originally planned.

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