WALT de VRIES: Is political consulting taking campaigns ‘back to the future?’
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Walt de Vries of Wilmington is a political consultant, author, university professor and founder of the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership. He is also co-founder of the American Association of Political Consultants. He has co-authored two books on Ticket-Splitting and another on Southern Politics.
Back in 1988, in a presentation to the American Political Science Association, I made some predictions about the trends in campaign consulting since 1969 when – when I was among three consultants (Joe Napolitan, Cliff White and myself) to form the American Association of Political Consultants.
Those trends--some 31 years later—have come to fruition:
This last trend is probably the one most noticed by the voters. It is the move to television production and time buys which often consume more that 50 percent of a campaign’s media budget.
But, today we may be moving “back to the future.” Before television, we used to send messages to the voters with stump speeches at rallies (now an art form for Donald Trump), newspaper ads, radio, door-to-door campaigning, fund-raising events and other person to-person tactics. These communication techniques are now being refined and computerized using “big data” and targeting programs to speed up and make more efficient the delivery of messages to the voters.
These changes have taken a lot of the drudgery out of campaign techniques and tactics -- they also make it possible for voter responses to candidates (polls and focus groups) to be collected almost instantly with highly reliable results.
While we seem still to be in a movement from personal campaigning and print media to television, we also appear to be moving back to the old-time 19th and 20th century personal campaign methods.
Television is changing from party and issue orientation messaging to a focus on the personality of the candidate. This trend—at all levels on the ballot—has evolved from positive personality ads to negative commercials that attack the character of the opponent. It is, I believe, a very disturbing trend that is not diminishing.
Lest you become disheartened by some of these trends, let me tell you of an energizing experience I had last week in Napa Valley at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AAPC. To me, this is the most important trend for political consultants -- the tremendous growth in the number and quality of female (and those of color) consultants and candidates.
When the AAPC first met in New York in 1969, there were about 40 consultants in attendance -- only three women (2 percent). At the 2019 conference, there were 750 consultants and guests. The portion of female consultants had soared to 40 percent of the AAPC membership. The AAPC has awards for young consultants: “40 under 40.” There were 18 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 4 Independents winners picked this year among 250 applicants.
My spirits were lifted as I met and talked with these young consultants. However, I warned that the scandals in Donald Trump’s Washington were challenging the perceptions of political consulting in the U.S. and around the world. Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and others who have been embroiled in illegal schemes that resulted in criminal investigations and convictions, have done severe damage to our profession. I wan note, however, that to the best of my knowledge—they were never members of the AAPC or the IAPC (international consultants).
Still, they and the news media call them ”political consultants.” Indeed, here in North Carolina. we have a “political consultant” who has been charged with illegally collecting absentee ballots – resulting in a congressional election being declared void and forcing a new one.
Political consultants, through organizations like the American Association of Political Consultants, need to be more focused on policing their conduct or could face legislation in Congress and state Legislatures to regulate legitimate campaign consulting. More laws are not the answer, but those of use in the political consulting profession need to hold ourselves – and our candidates -- to the highest ethical standards. And, I believe we can.