Political consultants form party infrastructure

The hidden network: political consultants form party infrastructure

Joseph W. Doherty

To many political scientists, political consultants are ruining the party system. They run candidate-centered campaigns that put the interests of the candidate ahead of the party. They blur the policy differences between the parties, and their winner-take-all ethic makes them difficult to keep under control. It is because of consultants, the political scientists contend, that modern politicians have no loyalty to each other and have no incentive to cooperate when elected. In contrast, old-time party organizations selected candidates, controlled campaigns and fostered a sense of shared destiny.

I disagree. Modern consultants aren’t in competition with the parties; they are the parties (or at least the infrastructures).

The political consulting industry has evolved over the past three decades into two opposing networks, Republican and Democrat. This did not happen by design. It emerged as consultants and candidates found it was better to cooperate than to isolate. They exchanged information and resources, won elections, built up trust, and expanded their influence. Over time, the network grew.

The significance of this development is subtle but crucial to modern American parties. Maintaining a party organization between elections is expensive. There are salaries, offices and utilities to pay for, and they must be sufficient to keep talented people on the payroll. Party organizations become moribund too, as apparatchiks stake their claims to status even when their effectiveness is gone. The consultant network solves both of these problems by putting the onus of maintenance on individual consultants, while simultaneously providing steady work for those who are talented and productive. In return, politicians of both parties have at their disposal a cadre of tested political operatives who are loyal to the party yet nimble enough to respond to electoral changes.

What are networks? We find them everywhere. Job hunters obtain leads through friendship networks. Corporate organizations have boards of directors to provide advice. Businesses have suppliers. Each of these networks is characterized by the presence (or absence) of lines of direct communication between individuals, and it is the structure of these connections that is revealing. For example, an individual’s position within the network says a lot about his or her status.

In a candidate-centered campaign, we might expect the candidate to be at the center, but this is not the case. Important studies of campaigns from the 1950s through the ’90s written by Dwaine Marvick, Xandra Kayden, Karl Lamb, Paul Smith, Marjorie Randon Hershey and J.P. Monroe have found that the candidate may be one part of a core group of decision-makers, but not the center of it. Indeed, even among the core group, not everyone is equally connected; some consultants are more important than others.

Candidates and consultants are embedded in an informal network that is like a neighborhood. You can look over your fence into the neighbor’s yard, but not into your neighbor’s neighbor’s yard. Campaigns that share consultants with other campaigns are in the same situation; they can’t see very far. They may know what is happening in campaigns with which they share consultants, but not those that are two or three yards away.

That distance doesn’t isolate them. Information is transmitted quickly from one to the next. Messages or tactics designed for Candidate One can be transferred to Candidate Three without conscious collaboration because they both share consultants in common with Candidate Two. As this process is repeated over time, strategies are honed, tactics are refined, and messages are developed.

This is not a description of “cookie-cutter” campaigns, but rather a byproduct of instant communications. Consultants talk, politicians talk, and they talk about politics. A well-turned phrase that works in one district might be effective in another, and a consultant would be remiss not to recommend it to a client. A pollster who develops an effective battery of questions gets more effective if he or she use the questions for all clients. And since the wall between parties is virtually sacrosanct, it should not be a source of conflict between politicians. Indeed, it is part of the process of developing something like a unified party message.

The initial test of this theory is to see whether consultant sharing is a dominant characteristic of modern political campaigns. In previous research I have analyzed the campaign networks in California (a state with historically weak party organizations) and found high degrees of partisanship and a significant allocation of resources to competitive races. Even without coordination from a central party organization, consultants were not distributed randomly among campaigns. Those working in the most competitive elections occupied the center of the consultant network.

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Now I turn my attention to congressional campaigns, specifically the 2004 House and Senate races. The data for this study come from the Campaigns & Elections “Winners and Losers” database for the 2004 election cycle. I removed non-congressional candidates and limited the consultants to the three types most often associated with strategic planning: general consulting, media and polling. This resulted in a list of 185 consultants and 479 candidates (221 Democrat and 258 Republican).

There are three major factors that affect the network structure. The first is partisanship. The networks of Democrats and Republicans do not overlap, based on the data available. None of the firms worked for both Republicans and Democrats.

The second is economy. Campaigns have little need to hire more than one consultant of each type; 89 percent of campaigns hired only one or two consultants.

The third factor is capacity. Consultants appear to have limited capacity to handle several clients, depending on the type of service they provide. This may be due to the level of personal care that clients need in a given specialization or to the ability of some consultants to subcontract most of the work. The consultants with the most clients tend to be pollsters, who can farm out their work to phone-banks. For example, Public Opinion Strategies had 69 Republican clients and Global Strategy Group had 27 Democrats.

But they are not typical. Ninety-one percent of consultants had 10 or fewer clients, and the average consulting firm had only two clients in congressional races. Even given these constraints, the resulting network structure is quite remarkable. A cursory glance reveals that the two parties differ in the prevalence of general consultants. Media and polling consultants dominate the Democratic network, while the Republicans have what appears to be an equal mix of the three types of consulting.

A second observation is that the consultants with the highest centrality–those with the highest number of connections–in both parties are pollsters. This is especially true among Republicans, whose main polling consultant is Public Opinion Strategies.

The fact that pollsters occupy this position should be no surprise, because they can take on more clients. But the implications of this are important. Pollsters are the information brokers of politics. They work on many campaigns, and their prominent position in the network means that strategies and practices among their clients are likely to be picked up by other campaigns and consultants.

A hidden facet of the consultant network is that most of these linkages represent a single campaign on which the two linked consultants worked together, even though each of them worked on multiple campaigns. There are very few teams of consultants who worked together on more than one race.

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Among the Democrats, no two consultants worked on more than three campaigns together. Two Republican consultants worked together on eight campaigns, and eight consultants worked with Public Opinion Strategies on three campaigns apiece.

Beyond this, there are no consultants who work as a team on several congressional campaigns. This is probably a good thing for each party. In other contexts, such a distribution of the workload has been found to increase the resiliency of the network to environmental shocks, and it also tends to discourage the development of potentially toxic “groupthink.”

The flip side of the consultant network is the set of relationships among campaigns. We see that most campaigns are highly embedded in the candidate network. There are distinct partisan differences in network structure.

As is shown below, the Republican network is comprised of one tightly knit cluster of candidates at the center and the Democrats have two or three loosely bunched clusters at the center. Multiple clusters illustrate that many candidates share the same consultants. The broader question is whether the structure of the network is correlated with anything that is politically relevant, like competition.

In order to compete, campaigns need information, which flows along the connections between campaigns. The speed and reliability of that flow is a function of the distances between any two points. So how big are the distances between the candidates? Returning to the earlier metaphor of the neighborhood, the distance to the neighbor’s yard is “one”, and to his neighbor’s yard is “two.” The shortest paths between candidates in the congressional network are relatively small, with average distance of 2.8 for Democrats and 2.4 for Republicans. The average Democrat is within three “yards” of every other Democrat. In practical terms this means that a campaign is three consultants and two telephone calls away from vital information it can use. A candidate doesn’t need to see very far in this network to benefit from membership in it.

Does it benefit candidates to reduce the distances between them? One theory of party organization suggests that it does. Candidates in competitive races are likely to band together in self-help. The inverse is also true. Non-competitive candidates are least likely to require or to offer help to fellow partisans; these are the prototypical candidate-centered campaigns.

Analysis of this data offers some support for my theory. The distances among Democratic candidates are significantly reduced if they are both running for office in competitive districts. They seem to band together. The same is not true of Republican candidates. The immediate political environment does not have a measurable impact on the structure of their network. It’s not clear why this is so.

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The influence of the party organizations on consultant selection is presumed to be important, but one of the fascinating aspects of this research is that the structure of congressional networks is very similar to those found in California state legislative races. The Democrats have a multi-clustered network, while Republicans are concentrated in a single cluster. Interestingly, California does not have anything remotely resembling the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that coordinates hiring consultants. Yet the political professionals are organized as if there was coordination. That is a curious finding and worth further inquiry.

Informal networks emerge from the incentives and motivations of the actors within them. Political consultants and candidates, with their needs to protect partisan boundaries, minimize campaign costs and maintain client lists, have inadvertently created a dense network of campaign expertise. It has become the infrastructure of modern American political campaigns, readily available to anyone with the money or the connections to tap into it. It is a political organization in everything but name.

Do political consultants harm the parties? No. The modern parties are unthinkable without them.

Joseph W. Doherty is the Director of the Empirical Research Group at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law and a doctoral candidate in political science at UCLA. He recently completed four years as the project director of the Campaign Disclosure Project, a 50-state study of campaign disclosure laws and practices (www.campaigndisclosure.org), that was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Since 1996 he has worked occasionally with the survey research firm of Fairbank Maslin Maullin & Associates on ballot measures and legislative campaigns. He can be reached at doherty@law.ucla.edu.

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