The Buzz

The business of politics a billion-dollar industry

On July 14, a Sunday, Jeff Roe picked up the phone.

The high-profile political consultant had worked quietly with Kansas City’s business elite for weeks on a nervy plan to pay for breakthrough medical research.

One not-so-small hurdle stood in the way. The corner office guys needed to persuade Jackson County’s voters, in just 90 days, to support a half-cent sales tax hike for something called translational medicine.

It was doable, Roe told them. An early poll suggested support for the concept, but he’d need $1 million for a successful campaign. They didn’t blink.

So he started calling other consultants. Video makers and media buyers. A pollster. Public relations specialists. Graphic artists and direct mail wizards.

The political industrial complex rumbled to life.

Across America, the business of politics now channels up to $10 billion a year — much of it pocketed by the pros who conduct the polls, craft the ads, buy the airtime, spin the news releases.

They flourish at the intersection of democracy and capitalism, their influence both obscure and undeniable. And a growing number of critics claim the industry is a profit-first enterprise that can sully public discourse:

• Political professionals engineer often brutal campaigns that, win or lose, leave ever-shrinking room for compromise after Election Day.

• The consultant class cranks up the importance of money in campaigns that, win or lose, expand the influence donors hold over public policy — and may increase public cynicism about government.

• And eventually the techniques of winning campaigns can leak into government itself, distorting messages and handing authority to non-elected consultants.

“The consultant class has made campaigns more negative, more destructive and less filled with ideas,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich in an interview. “It’s bad for the system of the country.”

Writes Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard: “No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting. Political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money.”

Consultants fiercely resist the criticism. Their job, they insist, isn’t to create division and dysfunction, but to listen to candidates and voters.

That’s the only way to win, which is the only thing that matters.

“Anytime I lose a race, I pay a penalty, whether it’s lost business or lost reputation,” Roe said. “When you win, you’re a genius. When you lose, you’re an idiot.”

Aaron Trost, a consultant with the Kansas-based firm Singularis, agreed.

“Political consultants just want to win,” said Trost, who has several high-profile wins on his resume. “If you don’t win, you’re not going to be in business.”

But critics say gluing that capitalist incentive onto a campaign leads directly to polarized government.

“You scare people,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group. “You stake out the most extreme position.”

Not all campaigns are negative, of course. The campaign for the health levy stayed largely upbeat for 16 weeks.

But the early emergence of an organized opposition to the tax clearly changed the cost calculus. By its end, Roe’s $1 million budget became $2 million.

Eventually, both sides would send a combined $3 million through the political industrial complex.

Win or lose, the complex gets paid.

Whatever it takes

Roe certainly knew how to win.

He launched his political career in the mid-1990s as a little-known assistant to Republican Sam Graves, then a member of the Missouri legislature. A decade later, after helping Graves move to the U.S. House, Roe formed Axiom Strategies, dedicated to electing conservatives across the country.

The company’s early successes were impressive, and its growth dynamic. In just a few years, Roe was working with GOP presidential candidates, House members and dozens of other campaigns, both in partisan races and ballot issues.

His campaign tactics were rarely subtle. His print and TV ads, like so many today, sometimes stretched facts. He became a legend for dispatching aides to ambush opposition candidates, ordered to capture unflattering photos.

In 2008, an ad accused House candidate Kay Barnes of holding “San Francisco values,” a thinly disguised criticism of her support from and for gays and lesbians.

At the time, some called the ad irrelevant — what did San Francisco have to do, they asked, with Social Security reform or tax policy?

But it worked. And it may reflect a common trend in other campaigns across the nation, a trend that critics say damages government.

Campaigns aren’t always negative, they say, just empty.

In 2010, Todd Tiahrt, then a congressman from Kansas, lost a bitter U.S. Senate primary to then-congressman Jerry Moran.

The candidates basically agreed on overall immigration policy, but they waged a furious TV battle with ads that focused on the most minor of differences between the two. Their consultants decided to make immigration a wedge issue, a way to drive the two Republicans apart.

Today, Tiahrt says consultants “warp” elections.

“Their advice is based on polling data and fear,” he said. “The results drag elections to the lowest common denominator and yield timid elected officials afraid of helping their constituents.”

Politics, of course, has never been simply about high ideals of governing. Americans have seen bitter campaigns for decades.

The modern marriage of nasty campaign tactics with a well-funded, professional political consulting and media industry dates to the 1930s. That’s when two former journalists joined forces to form a company called Campaigns Inc., in California.

The firm’s key insight: Mass-marketing politicians could be enormously lucrative.

Its success quickly helped extend the reach of the political industry across American government. By the 1960s, broadcast ads were married with ever more precise polling and focus groups. Political messages were tested, refined, changed. Candidates in major races added video experts to their teams.

Consultants quickly grew in stature, often becoming as well known as their clients. Roger Ailes helped package Richard Nixon’s first successful presidential campaign, work memorialized in the book “The Selling of the President 1968.”

Other famous consultants followed — Lee Atwater, Ed Rollins, James Carville, Dick Morris, Karl Rove. Their names were often better known than the candidates they served.

Power brokers

Today, hiring a prominent consultant can mark a key turning point in a campaign.

It signals to the folks bankrolling election fights that a campaign is worth backing. It tells party brass that a candidate impressed the pros. It ties a campaign into a network that shares the latest talking points, databases and technical know-how.

“The parties have outsourced much of the technical expertise to their respective consultant classes,” said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College who has researched the role of political consultants.

They’re increasingly seen, and often see themselves, as the people who vet candidates early in a campaign cycle.

“They’re sort of kingmakers of their own sort,” said Jim Slattery, a Democrat and former congressman from Kansas who lost U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections to Republicans.

Now more than 3,000 political consulting firms across the country, by some estimates, run everything from school bond elections to presidential campaigns. They’re networked to hundreds of polling firms, media buyers, ad production houses, direct mail specialists, fundraising advisers, phone bank operators and other businesses related to electing candidates.

In short, the political industrial complex.

There’s a magazine aimed at consultants, and a trade group — the American Association of Political Consultants — with a nine-point ethics code that critics say is often observed only in the breach.

Each year the group hands out “Pollie” awards for the best campaign pieces. (Roe’s Axiom has won several.)

Beyond elections

But a well-run campaign doesn’t always yield a well-run government.

“In order to win, the first thing a consultant will say is, ‘We’ve got to move to the left or the right,’” said David Rehr, who teaches political consulting at George Washington University. “But let’s say you’re in a primary and you’re almost equal on those ideological issues. Then I tell you as a consultant: ‘Find an issue where you can be even more conservative. Or more liberal.’”

That, in turn, makes eventual lawmaking much more difficult.

After candidates move to the edges, the middle is harder to find, Sunlight’s Allison said.

“You can’t suddenly walk it back, after stating the other party is going to destroy the entire country, and say, ‘But we’re going to work out a compromise,’” he said.

For most of his career, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas has been considered a relatively centrist Republican — more Bob Dole than Ted Cruz. Yet this year, facing an aggressive tea party challenger, Roberts has bitterly attacked Democrats, even calling for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — a longtime family friend.

The suddenly right-wing senator may win his primary, but reaching compromise in Congress with Democrats in 2015 will be that much harder.

Slattery was a colleague of Roberts in the U.S. House. He says sharp, consultant-driven rhetoric makes decision-making more difficult.

Few Democrats can win primary elections while talking about cutting back Medicare benefits, he pointed out. Even fewer Republicans can win their party’s nomination talking about higher taxes.

“Politicians today, with the help of consultants, have become very artful at promising everything without asking anything,” he said. “When was the last time you heard a politician talk about our duty as citizens to do anything? Pollsters will tell you that doesn’t sell to voters.”

Consultants, by contrast, insist divisive campaigns can sometimes help voters make up their minds. And, they say, they’re falsely accused of using negative tactics in every race.

Those pushing the health tax, for example, decided quickly they would explain the proposal in positive commercials and mailers.

Was Jeff Roe getting soft?

No, he says. But different campaigns need different messages.

And some voters have changed. For instance, he says he wouldn’t run the “San Francisco values” ad today. Not because it’s divisive, but because it wouldn’t work.

More money

By August, it was clear $1 million for the health tax campaign wouldn’t be enough.

Springfield lawyer Brad Bradshaw had decided to buy advertising against the proposal. Later, a mysterious campaign committee would surface, pouring additional money into the effort against the tax.

The blossoming budget didn’t surprise Steve Glorioso, a Democrat, part-time political consultant and strategist in Kansas City for parts of five decades.

“It’s become an arms race,” he said, “because of this huge amount of money, this disgusting amount of money, in politics.”

Most of that money finds its way to the political industrial complex. Consider some of the money spent to support the health tax:

• Glorioso worked on the campaign for roughly three months. Through Oct. 24, records show, his company was paid $27,500 for “professional media services.”

• Roe’s company, Axiom, earned $62,662 for its work by mid-October. Candidate Command, a different Roe company, was hired for robocalls, yard signs and video services, collecting $17,000 more.

• Veteran Kansas City consultant Pat O’Neill’s events and marketing company earned $22,125.

• Cambridge Consultants of Prairie Village, run by longtime local strategist Pat Gray, was promised $20,000.

• Powerful Performance Solutions — a company owned by Phil Scaglia, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s adviser — would get $7,500.

• So would Midwest Mediation and Consulting, a company owned by Missouri Sen. Paul LeVota and his brother, Phil.

• The Dover Group, which had worked on Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ election, was given the direct mail contract — by mid-October it had received $311,660 for advice, mail pieces and postage.

But most of the pro-health tax campaign money would go for TV ad time. Records show the campaign paid almost $675,000 — not including the week before the election — to the Smart Media Group of Alexandria, Va., which it used to buy commercials.

All of this was paid for with a torrent of cash from tax hike supporters: the Civic Council, Donald Hall, Children’s Mercy Hospital, others.

That pattern — massive donations and spending through the political industrial complex — plays out in campaigns across the country every year. The recent governor’s race in Virginia cost more than $50 million, with most of the money going for polls, ads and consultants.

Last year’s Senate race in Missouri meant $38 million for the campaign industry.

That amount of money, critics suggest, could leave voters deeply cynical about the influence of money on political decisions. And consultants may have a financial incentive to keep politics as confrontational as possible.

The more arguing, the more money the industry earns.

Most political operatives, past and present, say that overstates the case.

Marcus Leach and Shawn Borich helped Bradshaw beat the health levy.

“We don’t make more money from a negative ad than a positive ad,” Borich noted.

Bill Lacy, a former presidential-level strategist who now directs the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, said most consultants “really think they’re doing something important for the country. It’s the voters who are much more polarized.”

Roe is just as succinct.

“Voters are dysfunctional,” he said. “They say they want a balanced budget, but then they want more Social Security.”

Some political scientists say it’s too glib to dismiss political pros as mere mercenaries. They often come to the trade from party organizations and almost always stick to one side of the country’s deep partisan divide.

“The market is structured to almost require consultants at the highest levels only work with one party or the other,” said Jacob Montgomery, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “But they’re not just about making money. They pick a side they believe in.”

One of Axiom Strategies’ clients is Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas. In the last election cycle, his campaign spent $665,714, the Center for Responsive Politics says, in a race without a Democrat.

Axiom got roughly $50,000 for its work on that 2012 campaign, such as it was.

His next race? As of Sept. 30, Yoder’s campaign had almost $1.8 million in the bank.

Always an opposition

Confined to elections, the political industrial complex might be worrisome. But some critics see it moving beyond campaigns to infect government — turning every policy decision into a poll-tested political judgment at the expense of compromise and quality legislation.

“As the campaign methods and tactics introduced by consultants gain favor with relevant political actors, lawmaking begins to take on the outward trappings of a modern campaign, complete with daily polls, mass media blitzes and staged public relations events,” wrote former congressional aide Doug Lathrop in “The Campaign Continues.”

“Many elements of campaigns,” he added, “are antithetical to governing.”

The U.S. House repeatedly has passed legislation repealing all or part of Obamacare — an effort doomed to failure because Democrats control the Senate.

In November, the Senate passed legislation barring discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender workers. It has little chance of even coming to a vote in the Republican House.

Both moves made core supporters happy. They’re unlikely ever to become law, but they’re something — symbolic, to be sure — to clobber the other side with in the next election.

In the mid-1990s, consultants and strategists helped Republicans draft the Contract with America, a set of poll-tested policy positions that helped the GOP win control of the House.

President Bill Clinton responded with his own consultant, Dick Morris, who advised a series of incremental policy choices that he believed voters would support. Clinton took the advice — and won re-election comfortably. (Morris is one of the rare modern-day operatives who has made money tailoring messages for both Republicans and Democrats.)

Many consultants acknowledge they maintain contact with their clients long after Election Day.

“Since time immemorial, politicians have held their fingers to the wind. That’s what they do,” said Martin Hamburger, a media consultant whose clients include Sly James and former congressman Dennis Moore. “In the governing period, we help quantify the choices in front of them with data” — polls.

Officeholders, he says, don’t always take that advice.

But they clearly have ongoing relationships:

• The Dover Group helped James win a close election in 2011. This year, almost two years before any re-election campaign, James’ campaign committee paid the company $5,305.

• U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s campaign paid top adviser Adrianne Marsh $50,000 in September for consulting services related to the 2018 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. (Both Marsh and McCaskill say the payment was for services related to the 2012 campaign.)

• In the 2012 election cycle, Cleaver’s campaign paid $728,626 to Powerful Performance Solutions, Scaglia’s firm, for mailers, polls and other campaign materials. So far this year, Cleaver’s campaign has paid the company an additional $195,490.

• Topeka consultant David Kensinger confirms an ongoing advisory relationship with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, even though he left Brownback’s staff more than 18 months ago.

• Roe’s continuing relationship with Graves and other Republicans is well known. One of Roe’s companies prepares postcards for members of Congress that are mailed at taxpayer expense.

So far this election cycle, Graves’ campaign has paid Axiom Strategies $9,428.

Roe says his discussions with Graves rarely venture into policy issues or what impact a vote or a decision might have.

“I can’t tell the last time Sam called me for advice on some issue,” Roe said. “What am I going to tell Sam he doesn’t already know?”

But when asked if he thinks any consultants suggest voting for or against a bill because of the possible political fallout, Roe hesitated, then answered.

“Yeah. Yep. I do think that happens,” he said. “Statesmanship gets lost in this, no doubt.”

In 2004, while a paid outside adviser to then-mayor Kay Barnes, Glorioso helped run the campaign for the city’s Sprint Center tax increase. The dual roles weren’t unusual for the longtime operative, who routinely moves from providing advice for campaigns to making policy recommendations.

“I do,” he said, “walk in and out.”

Glorioso says political consulting is just a small part of his work, which is more centered on private clients. But he rejects the idea that blurred lines lead to politically motivated legislation or poor policy decisions.

“We told Kay not to put the arena on the ballot,” he recalled. “We could have said, ‘Yeah, put it on, we’ll have a campaign to run.’ But we didn’t.”

It went on the ballot and won.

Win or lose

The health sales tax also went on the ballot, of course. It lost by a historic margin, despite Axiom’s campaign.

Final spending figures will be released in December, but the political industrial complex — consultants, pollsters, TV stations, button makers, all of it — will almost certainly take $3 million for work over three late-summer and early-fall months.

Roe and the others involved in November’s election say they became convinced the tax was a good idea. They’re disappointed it didn’t pass.

And business prospects suffered.

“I’m going to pay a penalty for this translational tax,” Roe said about the outcome of the health campaign.

Even a losing campaign may have some benefits.

Jackson County residents may have a better understanding of translational medical research after the campaign, and a full discussion of the area’s business recruiting efforts may be easier to contemplate.

But the final results are the same: A $3 million investment yielded the status quo. No additional tax. No new health research.

There may be several reasons for that outcome, of course. For all his expertise, Roe can’t control every factor in an election — the state of the economy, a public reluctant to pass another sales tax.

“There’s still some snake oil in it,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.

But it may also show that the political industrial complex remains embedded in our democracy, potentially at our peril.

Because despite the November loss, funds will easily be raised for the next campaign. TV stations will still sell ads. Opposition researchers will still look for weak spots in opponents’ statements and votes.

Yard signs aren’t going away anytime soon. The complex will see to that.

Next year brings a midterm election. James may want something on the spring ballot. Petition drives are underway for Missouri ballot issues. Kansas City Council races will start about a year from now.

And the political industrial complex is just a phone call away.

Healthy spending

These are the spending figures through Oct. 24 for the campaign committees involved in the November health levy vote. Some spending overlaps but is counted only once.

Figures are rounded. Minor administrative spending is not included.

Tax supporters
Committee for Research Treatments and Cures
Advertising (TV, radio, print, Web, billboards)$708,906
Direct mail$311,660
Consulting, public relations$164,635
Photography, video production, design, printing$109,708
Polling, analysis$77,523
Yard signs and T-shirts$9,152
Grass-roots outreach and canvassing$21,500
Contributions to other groups (Jackson Co. Democratic Coalition)$80,000
Tax opponents
Citizens for Fairness/ Government Policies Foundation
Direct mail$15,144
Contributions to other groups (Freedom Inc.)$65,000
Citizens for Responsible Research (through Oct. 31)
Consulting, direct mail, event production, misc. (Borich Group)$75,055
Committee to Stop a Bad Cure
Advertising (Print, billboards, buttons, fliers)$7,368