by Charles Green
A Booming Industry
Harper’s Magazine has written an expose on the rise of the “election industrial complex”. This moniker refers to the election consulting industry which consists of strategists, pollsters, TV-ad makers, media buyers, direct-mail specialists and broadcasters. This industry has experienced substantial growth.
According to Harper’s, “the rise of the modern election industry can in fact be dated to post-Watergate efforts to rein in campaign spending. New rules imposed accounting requirements, which effectively mandated the services of professionals, while limits on party spending fostered an explosion in PACs — each of which, naturally, required a consultant. Decade after decade, the industry kept growing. Meanwhile, a spate of recent legal decisions — most notably the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling but also a lower court’s SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission — inaugurated the age of super PACs, to which corporations and individuals can donate without restraint.”
The election consulting industry earned approximately $7 billion in revenue during the 2012 election cycle. The revenue for 2016 will likely exceed this amount. Before the New Hampshire primary, the industry has spent $100 million on TV advertising. In comparison, the industry has spent $2 million at the same point during the 2012 election.
Harper’s also cites the many ways in which campaigning can be profitable. Even losing campaigns can generate revenue for the election consulting industry. “After Newt Gingrich pulled out of the 2012 race, a firm called TMA Direct brought in an additional $1 million by renting out his and other donor lists. The more capacious universe of Mitt Romney donors, meanwhile, can be rented for $131,468.”
In addition, the consulting industry even profits from candidates who don’t directly retain its services. For example, despite Trump’s self-funding strategy, the consultant class has still been able to leverage his campaign to grow its revenue. For example, the super PAC known as Our Principles has spent $3.3 million in Trump opposition campaigning.
Profits over Effectiveness
The spending associated with the rise of the consultant class is based on the assumption that media spending is the most effective method to influence elections. However, academic research indicates that face-to-face interaction has the most dramatic effect on voter turnout. This strategy involves volunteers or paid staff canvassing neighborhoods which is known as “field operations” or a “ground campaign”. The strategy still has expenses such as housing, feeding and transporting volunteers, but is still substantially more cost effective than media campaigns. Candidates often refer to the importance of grass roots campaigning, but the convenience of media spending and fear of opponent advertising causes candidates to often ignore low cost volunteer strategies.
Ground operations are effective in large part because winning elections is largely about voter turnout. American presidential election turnout is low (57.5%). In addition, the political beliefs of most voters tend to change little over time. As such, connecting with base voters in a way that encourages them to participate is more effective than attempting to influence their beliefs. However, the election consulting industry has little incentive to pursue this strategy as media campaigns require enormous amounts of money and generate large corresponding profits for election consultants.