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Do politicians get their money’s worth from their consultants?

Political consultants have obtained an exalted status in contemporary politics. But for their sky-high fees, and in an era when Donald Trump won his party’s nomination without the help of experienced campaigners, what do consultants really offer a candidate? As part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff interviews journalist Molly Ball about what she found.

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    Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, political scientists have already begun studying this groundbreaking campaign.

  • One tantalizing subject:

    the true value of political consultants. Are they worth the millions they charge politicians each year?

    Atlantic magazine writer Molly Ball explores this question in her article, "There's Nothing Better Than a Scared, Rich Candidate."

    What a great quote.


  • MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic:


    That is a quotation from a book by a political scientist about the political consulting industry. And it's something that a consultant said to him that just really summed up what I was getting at with this article, which was kind of asking the question, is this all a con game, this political consulting racket?

    Candidates are spending billions of dollars, and what are they really getting for it? Or is it just the consultants lining their pockets?


    Well, this is a question that has been asked for some time, but it comes into particular relief this year, doesn't it?


    That's right.

    I mean, first of all, look at what happened particularly in the Republican primaries. You had the two extremes. You had Jeb Bush spent $130 million, end up with four delegates.

    JEB BUSH (R), Former Governor, Florida: I'm Jeb Bush, and I approve this message.


    Donald Trump spent almost nothing.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: I'm not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don't have to brag. I don't have to, believe it or not.


    Had no experienced consultants on his staff, nobody who'd ever run a presidential campaign before, and barely advertised on television, didn't do any of the tactical stuff we're used to and we write about so much, building of field operation and having a communications shop and all of that stuff. And he won the whole thing.


    I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination.



    So, the question is, does that mean the emperor has no clothes? Does that mean that all this spending — there's more money in politics than ever before. Because of the way campaign finance has been deregulated, donor money is pouring into the political process. There's, by one estimate, $6 billion this year alone.

    Where is all that money going, what is it doing, and is it having any effect?


    So, you spent time talking with one of the people who was key in the Jeb Bush campaign, Mike Murphy, somebody who's been around for a while in American Republican politics. And what did you find from talking to him about what the plan was and how he saw his ability to shape the campaign?



    Well, I want to make it clear that I'm not really picking on Mike Murphy. He's just an exemplar of this phenomenon. But it's a pretty perfect example of a campaign that spent a lot of money, had a very professional staff, and didn't achieve any results.

    Mike Murphy's explanation was, this just wasn't the year for a candidate like Jeb Bush. And I think that's certainly true in retrospect, in hindsight. But he said that, we had to have all that money because it was the only way we could have gone against the headwinds we were facing. And nobody could have anticipated the magnitude of the electorate's appetite for what he terms a grievance candidate.

    But, you know, the donors that I spoke to, the people who were giving Jeb Bush $100 million, they expect the consultants to see those things.


    For all the controversy, the questions around political consultants, some of them have achieved near mythic status, James Carville from the Bill Clinton campaign of years ago, Karl Rove from George W. Bush's campaign.

    They really helped make these candidates who they were, didn't they?


    This is really a modern phenomenon of the consultants as a celebrity in his or her own right.

    Political consulting gets started back in the 1930s, but they were really sort of anonymous figures until really in the 1990s. Political journalism really started focusing on these sort of Oz-like figures, right, the man behind the curtain pulling the strings.


    I just took it as a good sign, because I don't think they would call back if they weren't considering.


    And so you do have — you know, you have the documentary "The War Room" about James Carville and George Stephanopoulos in the '90s.


    It's going to come out that Roger Ailes is behind a lot of this stuff before an election.


    Those men are now famous in their own right.

    Karl Rove was supposedly George W. Bush's brain, right? Bush is, in this scenario, sort of a hapless pawn, and Rove is calling all the shots.

    But, you know, part of why we turn consultants into heroes like this is because partisans, particularly on the losing side, want to believe that there was some kind of hidden genius. It wasn't that their candidate wasn't good enough and people didn't like what they were offering, and voters rejected them. It's that there was this, you know, sinister Svengali on the other side who had some kind of magical ability to control the electorate.


    Is it possible to know how much of a campaign and a candidate's performance in a campaign is thanks to the consultant and how much of it is the candidate himself or herself?


    It's very difficult.

    I mean, political scientists actually love the Donald Trump campaign, because it's sort of a control for the experiment, right? Because there has been so little consultant input to Donald Trump's presentation, you can sort of isolate the effect of a candidate on his own with his particular charisma and no particular shaping or help, at least until the very late stages of his campaign.

    But, in general, political scientists have been studying this for decades. A real landmark of this type of study was done when Rick Perry was running for governor of Texas in 2010, and the consultants running his campaign actually allowed a group of political scientists to run a randomized controlled experiment, where they ran ads in one part of Texas.

  • GOV. RICK PERRY (R-Texas):

    I'm proud of Texas. How about you?


    They didn't run any ads in the other part of Texas. And these were pretty similar populations, so they could really see, what was the effect? How much did people in this part of Texas like Rick Perry more, having seen his ads, vs. the people in this other place?

    And they did find there was a small effect, about five points. But it was gone within a week.


    And yet certain political ads are seared in our collective memory as game-changers, such as the so called "Daisy" ad Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

  • MAN:

    Two, one, zero.


    Or the windsurfing ad run against John Kerry in 2004.


    John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.


    What the consultants will tell you is that the kind of mythmaking that we journalists engage in, where we say, this ad was the turning point, that's basically false.

    It was the fundamental factors driving the electorate that led to one candidate winning or losing. John Kerry, according to the political consultants, was almost certainly going to lose that election anyway, given the makeup of the race, being up against an incumbent, the economy doing how it was doing.

    And LBJ almost certainly would have won that election without the "Daisy" ad.


    Did you come away with a sense of what tactics can work and which ones are increasingly not shown to be effective?


    You do see an increasing emphasis on field organizing, as opposed to advertising. You see this with labor and with particularly Democratic presidential campaigns.

    And there is a much more conclusive evidence in the political science literature that this kind of thing actually works. The Obama campaign really pioneered this model of intensive field organizing, hundreds of campaign offices all over the country. But you need a candidate who's compelling enough to attract a lot of volunteers to make an effort like that work. You can't just pay for it all.


    To what extent are these consultants doing this to make money? How much do they really care about what happens in the political process? Are they committed to a particular ideology?


    Well, I attended the convention of the American Association of Political Consultants. And the consultants will tell you that they are in this because they want to make the world a better place.

    Most of them only work for one side. They're either a Democratic consultant or a Republican consultant. And so they're trying to advance this vision of the world, trying to achieve changes in policy by helping candidates get elected.

    But they will admit they also have to make a living.

  • MAN:

    It's me, candidate for president.


    At this conference you covered, they showed a generic political ad. Talk about what was in that ad and what the reaction was.


    This was a pretty incredible video. It was completely generic. There's a sort of generic white man walking through a generic field, and there's images of American flags, welders in a factory, all of the things that might come to mind when you imagine a generic political ad.

    And the message it was sending was, these candidates are just someone that the consultant sticks in there to read the script, and they could all pretty much be saying the same thing. They're all pretty much interchangeable.

  • MAN:

    I'm a candidate for president, and I endorse this message.


    Which is enough to make one pretty cynical about this.


    I think it is.

    And I think that this actually goes some way to explaining the appeal of Donald Trump to so many voters. He is not someone who seems like someone is managing him, to put it lightly. He seems utterly authentic in a way that is frequently offensive, but he comes across as unfiltered.

    And I think, in some ways, the attraction of a candidate like that is, in part, voters' reaction to the influence of consultants and how choreographed and how stale and how totally staged and scripted so much of our political process has come to feel, because it has become so homogenized by the influence of consulting.

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