Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Elizabeth Wilner, March 21, 2013

Politicians have accountability on the brain. Voters get regularly scheduled opportunities to make them answer for the job they’re doing. A favorite way for politicians to look as though they’re serving the people is to go after those who aren’t.

But when it comes to the strategists whose job is to help them keep theirs, pols have a brain fart.

The multibillion-dollar profession of politics requires no formal credential. To adapt a line from Democratic pollster Peter Hart, a roofer needs more accreditation to put shingles on your house than a consultant needs to spend millions of dollars on a candidate’s behalf. When a consultant’s inexperience, failure to keep up with changing times and technology, or blatant malpractice keeps a winnable race out of reach, the losers have little recourse.

Kudos to the Republican National Committee for elevating the usual post-presidential election finger-pointing with a meaty report that tackles the party’s mechanical challenges without burning any consultants in effigy. The report proposes audits and competitive bidding at the national level as at least some means of enforcing good consultant behavior.

To be clear, rogue consultants are a bipartisan, ballot-wide affliction. The more local you get, the more the campaign staffs look like mom, pop and Cousin Vinny the videographer. The more clients a consultant takes on, the more likely he or she is to start phoning in the same advice to campaigns in Idaho and Maryland. Every cycle, inexperienced or negligent strategists do the other side a favor by guiding candidates to losses that could have been wins. There’s no political Angie’s List candidates can check references beforehand. There probably should be.

But the higher you are on the ballot, the more painful the consequences are. Just ask the party that trudges into the desert every fourth November if losing the presidency was worth gaining clarity about any consultant shortcomings that contributed to the loss.

The consultants and party operatives I interviewed all said the solution is market forces—that consultants who don’t keep current and work conscientiously for their clients eventually cease to get hired. But, they recognize, the sidelining of a bad consultant can take many election cycles if it happens at all. And if the blown race is for the presidency, does it matter if he or she ever gets hired again?

Most professionals making a living in politics are highly qualified, dedicated and possessed of immense integrity, as well as the iron stomachs needed to usher candidates who are often personal friends through the gut-wrenching process of running for office.

And when one party has a particularly good year, that party’s consultants are often cast as geniuses while the other party’s consultants are labeled fools, neither of which is usually true.

To a person, though, political professionals are a territorial bunch with their own particular training and backgrounds who have pursued their work with a minimal exchange of ideas for best practices and adaptation to new technologies. When consultants update their approaches, it’s because they got beat or are at risk of getting beaten, not because of any campfire circles with their peers.

If Democratic professionals have a leg up on sharing strategies, as the authors of the RNC report observe, it’s because they got their butts kicked earlier this century. The Atlas Project, a clearinghouse of data and other information created to arm the whole bench of Democratic campaign organizations (and a CMAG client), has its roots in the party’s loss to President George W. Bush in 2004. Just eight years ago, the GOP’s targeting apparatus was superior.

Republicans’ added challenge is that the lack of consultant accountability grows more serious with time. The speed of technological and demographic change means that every two to four years, political professionals either have significant updating and upgrading to do, or they fall further behind. Ask media buyers who thought the gross rating point would be the last metric they ever needed, or pollsters who didn’t think cell phones would be a big deal.

The Capitol Hill-based campaign committees which traditionally have monitored consultant work are losing their influence. A longtime senior Democratic committee operative laments that super PACs are now providing the kind of financial firepower that the committees used to dangle before candidates as the carrot to heed their advice, including who to hire or not hire. High turnover among committee staff means a constant drain of institutional knowledge of which strategists serve their clients well or not. It also means that bad consultants can outlast their critics.

Most critically, campaign execution makes a real difference in races that are decided at the margin. Presidential races are now regularly decided there.

All consultants get it wrong sometimes. The best of them own up. Several prominent pollsters pegged the 2012 presidential outcome wrong after their methods of identifying likely voters didn’t predict the makeup of the electorate and the size of President Obama’s margin.

One of them, Public Opinion Strategies, a well-respected firm whose 2012 clients included Governor Mitt Romney, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and numerous GOP congressional candidates, is investing its own resources and part of 2013 in refining its identification of likely voters by matching poll interviews to voter rolls. On the public side, Gallup brought on an outside expert to conduct a review.

In other sectors, consumer or shareholder outrage usually forces improvements in accountability. Not in politics. Failed candidates often don’t want to hold bad consultants responsible. The healthy egos that drive them to run for office keep them from acknowledging being the face of a flawed campaign.

One strategist with a long string of wins suggests that when a candidate entrusts his career to you, he wants to believe you have the secret sauce that can help him win. Maybe he doesn’t ask as many questions as he should. Like the senior Senate Democrat who, in 2004, was using a media consultant who was so behind the times, he was still flying tape to TV stations.

Political consulting may be a multibillion-dollar industry but at heart, it’s scores of small businesses operating independently. So treat it that way. Everyone’s building databases, anyway. How hard would it be to create a database of consultant track records and standardized reviews that outlasts the constant drain of institutional knowledge? Angie did it.

No conscientious consultant would object to fair questions and scrutiny. They’re all in politics because they’re competition junkies. They need the regular rush that the election schedule provides which a decades-long fight for toothpaste market share doesn’t. Their commitment to accountability is just another front on which they can try to beat their peers. The only ones among them who’ll mind having to answer for how they do their jobs are the ones who aren’t doing them.