Leviathan's reach? The impact of political consultants on the outcomes of the 2012 republican presidential primaries and caucuses.

Author:Cain, Sean A.
Position:Polls and Elections - Report

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign spent $37.5 million (1) between January 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, on the services of professional political consulting firms to help win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Eleven of his GOP opponents also hired consulting firms during that time period, but their combined spending to consultants amounted to only $1 million more than that. But he was not the front-runner in political consultant use. That distinction went to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who made payments to 31 consulting firms during the primary season, compared to Romney's 20. Yet Gingrich spent a mere $4 million on the services of his consultants. If Gingrich hoped to win the nomination with the help of his consultants, it would be on the cheap. Gingrich contracted with six consulting firms that had been employed by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 2008 or 2010, the same number as Romney did. If Gingrich, out of elected office for more than a dozen years before running for president, hoped by doing so to demonstrate the organizational strength of a viable, party-approved candidate, he had, at best, modest success and won only two states' primaries.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had also been out of office for several years, but he spent $9-5 million on the services of consultants, and while only three of his firms had recently worked for the party, he paid them 80% of that sum, compared to Gingrich, who spent 11% of his budget for outside consultants on those with recent party contracts. Did Santorum have his consultants to thank as he finished in second place with 11 popular vote victories? Or was his or any other of the field's consultants irrelevant to their relative success or failure? Would they have been better or worse off to hire firms who had worked for the party in order to be their party's presidential standard bearer? In short, does the use of political consultants by presidential candidates increase political party influence over the outcomes of primaries and caucuses to the extent that candidates' consultants are beneficiaries of party largesse?

The nomination of candidates has long been considered vital to understanding the extent of American political party power, and answers to these questions help explain whether political consultants serve and enhance such power. According to Schattschneider (1942), "[t]he nature of the nomination procedure determines the nature of the party; he who can make nomination is the owner of the party" (quoted in Ranney 1971, 151). Yet presidential primaries and caucuses, as means for the party-in-the- electorate to nominate candidates, diminish party power to the extent they encourage candidates to self-select to run, develop personal campaign organizations, and actively campaign on themes not vetted by the party organization (Aldrich 1995; Crotty and Jacobson 1980; Wattenberg 1991, 1996). The political consultants upon whom candidates rely to provide strategic advice to target and persuade voters have been thought to heighten candidate-centered campaigning by exploiting these incentives to distance the candidate from her party (Sabato 1981; Shea 1996).

However, consultants who works for a presidential candidate seeking nomination may not necessarily resist the will of party leaders and insiders in their selection of and labor for candidate clients. Most consultants maintain professional relationships with one party's (and rarely the other's) organization as well as its candidates (Luntz 1988), often having prior employment as staff of party committees and offices (Kolodny and Logan 1998) or as providers of electioneering services as contract workers for party campaign committees (Kolodny and Dulio 2003). Consultants, in this regard, are informal actors within a mutually beneficial network of party elites (Grossmann 2009; Herrnson 2009; Nyhan and Montgomery 2011). To the extent that presidential candidates rely on consultants for their services, and those consultants have professional ties to party committees, the political consultant may be less mercenary than loyal partisan foot soldier.

If these consultants help candidates persuade political elites and voters in order to decide presidential nomination more than other consultants who lack contractual relationships with the party, they demonstrate another means for the American political party to exert power over the achievement of electoral goals as well as the ability of political consultants to serve as powerbrokers in presidential elections. Party elite politicking, whether to coalesce around a front-runner or to diffuse support across multiple candidates, is not necessarily limited to endorsers who are visible to the media but should also include the recruitment of professional campaigners, whose empirical study could help scholars "tell whether professional support, which is mostly but not entirely technical, is more or less support than political support" for shaping the course of party nomination contests (Cohen et al. 2008, 257). While most empirical work on the impact of political consultants on election results has been conducted at the congressional level (Cain 2013; Dulio 2004; Medvic 2001; Medvic and Lenart 1997), this work builds upon congressional studies of consultant use to assess whether consultants can influence electoral outcomes in a setting of such elevated ambition and stakes as a presidential primary campaign.

Political Consultants as Postreform Presidential Campaign Players

The foundations for assessing whether parties influence presidential nomination races via association with consultants begins, ironically, with the postreform era of presidential campaigns in which candidates sought professional expertise outside the party organization to campaign directly to diverse primary and caucus electorates. After the Democratic Party's McGovern--Fraser reforms and subsequent reforms in the GOP institutionalized primaries and caucuses as the means of convention delegate selection, a successful presidential campaign required candidates in the 1970s and '80s to shepherd the resources of an enormous organizational effort (Wattenberg 1991). Polsby likened campaigns in this era to independent Broadway productions that candidates financed with the help of their own personnel, toured across the states according to the primary and caucus schedule, and self-promoted with personalized appeals to each electorate without the help of state partes (1983, 72). Because they could offer a variety of services from polling to advertising to meet the new demand, political consultants helped candidates circumvent parties and became "a new group of political decision-makers [which] has gained significant authority" (Polsby 1983, 73). Consultants became a "relatively small and elite corps" of professionals who gained experience from working on hundreds of campaigns, and often more than one campaign per election year (Sabato 8-9).

In postreform presidential campaigns reliant upon professional consultants, candidates endeavor to shape the perceptions and prognostications of news media elites, who interpret primary campaign events and outcomes to emphasize intraparty competition. Candidates attempt to cultivate media coverage and expectations, and maximize their electoral success across the long nomination calendar in order to keep campaign donations flowing (Damore 1997; Mutz 1995). A journalistic pioneer of horse-race evaluations, R. W. Apple, described near the start of the 1976 presidential primary calendar the media's tendency to fashion "[a] kind of rough standing among the candidates [that] has suddenly started to emerge in the minds of political professionals around the country" (Arterton 1978, 11). The early nomination contests after the reforms saw the emergence of candidates who exceeded media expectations and sustained enough momentum to reach some success in winning delegates, if not the nomination, and voters could develop their candidate preferences around expectations of viability, unless the contest was heavily lopsided (Bartels 1985, 1988).

Although political consultants have had an adversarial relationship with the news media, it emphasizes the viability of campaigns that use particularly reputable consulting firms. Consultants view the media more negatively than the public as a whole for its tendency to critique the fruits of their labor, such as campaign ads via adwatches (Dulio 2004, 95-97). Media actors, however, consider the presence of consultants in campaign organizations, at least at the congressional level, and are more likely to view campaigns that hire well-reputed consultants as viable and competitive than campaigns that use less-esteemed consultants or none at all (Cain 2011). I expect this phenomenon between consultant presence and media perceptions of campaign viability to occur in presidential campaigns because candidates throughout the postreform era have consistently devoted human and financial resources to woo reporters, and "[l]ike the rest of the campaign, getting good press has become professionalized" (Polsby et al. 2012, 164). Since the 1980s, the news media has paid close attention to the political consulting industry, especially in presidential election years (Panagopoulos 2006). Candidates hire a well-rounded team of consultants very early in the campaign, because they believe it can indicate themselves a "serious candidate" to party

insiders and the news media (Johnson 2007, 37). On the other hand, the political press follows decisions to hire consultants in its handicapping calculus, and it discounts the chances of candidates who experience "organizational problems" (Jackson and Crotty 1996, 60).

Candidates and Consultants within the Expanded Party Network

Even as candidates wage mass media campaigns, the political party organization has remained a player in the presidential...

To continue reading