Political consulting is the business which has grown up around advising and assisting political campaigns, primarily in the United States. As democracy has spread around the world, American political consultants have often developed an international base of clients. Though its most important role is probably in the production of mass media (largely television), political consultants advise campaigns on virtually all of their activities,from research to field strategy.
The practice of consulting has several early precedents. President William McKinley’s closest political advisor Mark Hanna is sometimes described as the first political consultant. In California in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Whitaker and Baxter established and grew the first true consulting firm, Campaigns, Inc. However, political consulting blossomed with the increasing use of television advertising for campaign communications in the 1960s. It was in that period that Joe Napolitan claims to have become the first person to describe himself as a political consultant (Perlmutter, ed. Manship Guide to Political Communication, pg19).
In the subsequent years, political consulting has grown in importance and influence and extended its reach to campaigns at all levels of government in the United States, and beyond. Many consultants work not only for campaigns, but also for other political
organizations, including parties and political action committees, sometimes through independent expenditures; some also do public relations and research work for corporations and governments. In fact, today corporations seeking approval from municipal boards have turned to land use political consultants to help earn need entitlements for their project.
Critics also blame political consulting, at least in part, for a variety of ills of the modern election process. In part because broadcast media consultants are often paid on commission, they are blamed specifically for the rising cost of political campaigns and the increasing reliance on paid media. A successful candidate running a low-budget campaign would be a serious economic threat to the political consulting field; such candidates, however, are rare.
Left-leaning activists within the Democratic Party, in particular, charge that political consultants are a major obstacle to participatory democracy, political reform, and electoral success for the Democrats. In a much-publicized e-mail on December 9, 2004, the online activist group MoveOn.org wrote, “For years, the Party has been led by elite Washington insiders who are closer to corporate lobbyists than they are to the Democratic base. But we can’t afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers.”
Lastly, there is growing professional opposition to what is called a cookie cutter campaign, where the themes and strategies of one campaign are transferred to another campaign, despite what may be major differences in political context. Brian Wright, president of Democrasource, LLC (an Ohio based national political consulting firm specializing in enhanced campaign data strategies and micro-targeting), believes that “it’s just a matter of time, campaign communications techniques are evolving so quickly — anyone sitting on the sidelines or clinging to the last presidential campaign’s strategies is done. The book’s been rewritten.”