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Political Admakers - Growing Influence Within Campaigns

April 7, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Media consultants. In the 1990s, politicians dare not hit the campaign trail without them.

Political admakers are everywhere. From the White House right on down to the mayoral and city council level, candidates are paying for the admakers’ advice.

Once treated by the campaigns as mere producers, media consultants today sit at the candidates’ roundtable of decision making. They can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars - sometimes millions - in a single campaign.

They’ve moved away from their commercial counterparts on Madison Avenue to become political specialists with their own power center - Washington.

There’s enough business to keep 200 political media consultants working full time, up from about 30 in 1969.

The big name consultants - Roger Ailes, Bob Squier, Frank Greer and Bob Shrum - have become as synonymous with politics as candidates themselves.

″In many ways they’ve become the gods of the election wars,″ said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.

Sabato attributes the media consultants’ rise to two things: the growing dominance of television and the increasing specialization and complexity of campaigning.

″It’s evolved because selling a product is far different from selling a human being,″ Sabato said. ″These media consultants have done literally hundreds of campaigns in their careers. Elected officials, if they’re lucky, may have been through 10 elections.″

The consultants now do much more than just make TV ads. Some like Greer, who is leading Democrat Bill Clinton’s media team, are well-known for calling news media to point out opponents’ inaccurate ads and gaffes in hopes of generating stories.

The consultants also coordinate the timing of the ads, arrange staged events that will garner free exposure, anticipate opponent’s responses, write stump speeches and coach candidates during debates or television appearances.

″It’s most important that a candidate’s paid and free media strategies are uniform, that you’re saying the same thing on your commercial that you’re saying on the stump. That’s where we come in,″ said David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic admaker also working for Clinton.

Ever since politics began there has been a need for the image-making power of advertising. War hero William Henry Harrison mastered it as far back as 1840 with his ″Log Cabin Campaign.″

Advertising has since became increasingly sophisticated and - with the rise of television coverage of presidential campaigns around 1960 - more dominant as well. Some of the images have even outlasted the campaigns.

In 1988, Ailes created the ″revolving door″ of furloughed Massachusetts criminals to help President Bush portray Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. He followed that with pictures of the polluted Boston harbor and Dukakis riding awkwardly in an Army tank - images from which Dukakis never recovered.

The increasing significance of the admakers is illustrated in simple numbers.

Herb Alexander, a University of Southern California political science professor, calculated that Bush spent $31.5 million on advertising in the 1988 general election - about 68 percent of his total budget - while Dukakis spent $23.5 million, or about half his total.

Alexander said the industry standard for admakers is to receive compensation for all production costs plus a commission of between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total purchased media time - meaning 1988′s presidential admakers easily earned in the millions of dollars.

Advertisers also have risen in stature within the campaigns.

Ailes, whose campaign work dates back to Richard Nixon, said by 1968 media consultants had moved from the role of outsiders to a ″seat at the table.″

″It all fell under the heading of message but it really came down to deciding who is our audience, what is our vehicle, what is the response we’d like to have and how are we going to handle the opponents’ message,″ he recalled.

Media consultants don’t hesitate to criticize their candidates in the midst of a campaign. Evidence abounds in this year’s presidential primaries.

-Ian Weinschel complained that his candidate, Republican Patrick Buchanan, ignored his advice to stick with economic issues and aired commercials in Georgia hitting Bush on social issues.

-Bush’s advertising team complained, anonymously, about what they considered Bush’s lack of a message.

-Paul Tsongas’ admaker, Michael Shea, reportedly disagreed with the campaign’s decision to mount attack ads against Clinton rather than stick with economic themes.

But some observers believe advertising’s impact on election outcomes is exaggerated.

Michael Robinson, a professor of government at Georgetown University, studied the outcome of 60 presidential primaries in the 1988 election and found the candidate who spent the most won 40 percent of the time.

″There’s no single tool more overrated in the toolbox of presidential politics than political advertising on television,″ he said.

Robinson said voters are savvy enough to ″filter out true nonsense in political advertising and despite all the hype make their voting decisions based more on information from news stories and debates.″

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