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February 10, 2004

political consultants

A Washington Post article suggests that perhaps Howard Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, decided to spend huge amounts of money on television because he is a partner in the firm that places ads for Dean's campaign, and it captures a percentage of every advertising dollar. In contrast, money spent on door-to-door canvassing, events, phone banks, and mass mail does not enrich Trippi personally.

Trippi denies a conflict of interest and emphasizes that all his decisions were vetted by others. I don't much care whether he's guilty or innocent as an individual. I'm more interested in the general problem of consultants' conflict of interest . There is a lot of evidence that door-to-door campaigning wins votes, but hardly any evidence for the effectiveness of TV advertising. Canvassing is also more likely to increase overall turnout, which is good for democracy. Since candidates could win by putting money into canvassing, one would expect them to do so. But not if their consultants advise them to spend on broadcasting--which enriches them personally.

Consultants reply as follows (I quote from the Post): "Although some disreputable practitioners may pad bills, other forces work against such behavior. Because ad strategists tend to make more money the longer a candidate stays in a race, it is self-defeating to spend wildly early on, they say. Moreover, winning is the best calling card of all: A successful campaign tends to burnish a media consultant's reputation and put the consultant in demand for the next election cycle."

The pressure to win has some influence on consultants, but it is only one factor among many. Besides, the reelection rate in Congress is at least 83%, so most consultants work for candidates who are bound to stay in the race until the end, and then win. Yet they choose to spend their money on advertisements rather than campaign techniques that would strengthen democracy.

February 10, 2004 12:05 PM | category: none


Here's an interesting aside in the debate of bloggers vs. "real" journalists. Apparently, that article (which was originally released by Reuters) flagrantly misrepresents Trippi's remarks about the Internet and broadcast media. Here's the scoop.

Also, the articles facts about Trippi don't add up yet. If his firm made 7% of $30mm in placed ads, and his take was 1/3, then that amounts to $800k not $165k. Perhaps the $165k figure is his take of the $350k+ of direct consulting fees charged to the Dean campaign. I don't think this story is over yet.

To your main point, though, I wonder if you read last week's Economist article, ""The new rules of politics in a 50:50 nation". It makes this interesting point:

"If the election is won by mobilising your base, you do not need to concern yourself with the other side, except to limit its turnout. The priority is to make your supporters more enthusiastic and more angry than your opponents, and this will give partisanship a sharper edge."

By their nature, turnout efforts are necessarily bitter partisan efforts and may undermine consensus and increase fragmentation in society.

So rather than bemoaning one campaign tactic over another, I think the real problem is the fundamental conflict between the political and civic objectives of campaigns.

February 10, 2004 1:51 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Michael Weiksner

Mike, Thanks as always for good information and an interesting perspective.

I would distinguish between motives and methods here. If you want to suppress the other side's turnout, then the best methods include "attack ads" and highly critical mass mailings. These methods can turn off some of your own voters, but sometimes candidates calculate that they'll do more damage to the other guy. Canvassing, on the other hand, is not a good way to suppress turnout. Nobody walks up to doors in hostile neighborhoods and tries to persuade people to stay home. (Apart from anything else, they'd get too much flack.) So canvassing efforts are races to maximize turnout in friendly precincts. This is good for democracy, especially since campaigns cannot help but reach some undecided voters in the course of a canvassing campaign, and then they tend to deliver positive messages.

In short, even in a 50/50 nation, campaigns have options. They can try to drive down the other side's votes, in which case they'll use broadcast ads, or they can turn out their own folks, in which case they'll canvass. The latter is better for democracy, but less lucrative for political consultants. -- Peter

February 14, 2004 5:14 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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