Presidential Campaigns Spending Large Sums on Political Pros

By Chris Cillizza Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

On the campaign trail, presidential candidates frequently decry reliance on consultants, but a survey of their financial reports shows business continues to boom for political professionals.

In the first three months of 2007, the leading White House contenders spent millions of dollars on pollsters, media consultants and advisers in early primary and caucus states as they lay the groundwork for the campaign ahead.

"Consultants are like lawyers," said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. "Everyone mocks their existence until they need them."

In a race as early starting and front-loaded as this one, Backus explained, individuals with prior experience in national races are invaluable to ensuring a smooth start. She predicted that in 2008 "consultants will play even more of a role since candidates are going to have to go national very fast once the primary clock starts ticking."

No candidate employed a larger cadre of consultants in the first quarter of the year than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who began the year as the front-runner for the Republican nomination but ended it in turmoil thanks in part to his slower-than-expected fundraising and fast rate of spending.

McCain dropped a whopping $645,000 on fundraising consultants. He was not alone. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) spent nearly $550,000 on fundraising advisers, while former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) devoted more than $163,000 to finance consultants.

The increasing cost of experts in the fundraising field is an outgrowth of the rising price tag for winning the presidential nomination, said Democratic fundraiser Dan Turrentine.

"Today you need a road map to raise $300 million," Turrentine said. "That takes a much bigger staff, much more time, and consequently consultants who do this want more money."

Turrentine added that the leading candidates can afford to hire people in specialized markets who know the terrain and can work more efficiently than a volunteer might. Giuliani, for instance, hired a Washington firm just to tap political action committees for support. Obama spent $20,000 on a fundraising consultant in Los Angeles, where he raised more than $4 million. "In every city there are people who know the donors who can deliver and who can't. They know who is an emerging donor in that city," Turrentine said. "That knowledge is invaluable."

Many of the top-tier presidential candidates also spent large sums on political consultants based in early-voting states.

McCain dropped more than $400,000 on political consultants in states such as South Carolina, Iowa, Florida, Alabama, Michigan and New Hampshire. In South Carolina alone, McCain had four consultants on the payroll in the first quarter.

Some of those contracts have been trimmed in an attempt to lower overall spending, said McCain communications director Brian Jones. "The campaign is in the process of making structural changes to ensure we achieve a higher rate of fundraising success in the second quarter and beyond," Jones said. He added that national finance chairman Tom Loeffler oversaw a series of gatherings with McCain's top money men and women aimed at establishing a more disciplined structure for collecting cash.

Romney doled out $25,000 to Tom Rath, who is leading the former governor's effort in New Hampshire and $84,000 to several companies tied to J. Warren Tompkins and Terry Sullivan -- Romney's lead consultants in South Carolina.

On the national level, Romney paid National Media nearly $1.8 million for the production and placement of several flights of television ads that ran in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as Michigan, South Carolina and Florida. One of the founding partners of National Media -- Alex Castellanos -- is Romney's lead media strategist for the presidential campaign. Romney's spending on national consultants also included $99,000 to Voter/Consumer Research for polling and $50,000 to TargetPoint consulting, a company that specializes in slicing and dicing voter data.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spent heavily on direct mail, dishing out nearly $500,000 in printing and postage costs to Olsen & Shuvalov -- a Texas-based direct mail company founded by White House senior adviser Karl Rove. Giuliani also spent the most on survey research of the top three Republicans, disbursing $121,000 to the Tarrance Group.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) racked up the biggest consultant fees, although she withheld paying some of her leading strategists, perhaps in an attempt to ensure her cash-on-hand figure -- $36 million at the end of March -- far outpaced her competitors.

Clinton owed Penn, Schoen & Berland, her pollster, $277,000 and Grunwald Communications, her media consultant, $155,000. O'Brien McConnell Pearson, which handles Clinton's direct mail, was owed $184,000.

In addition to the traditional expenditures on national consultants, Clinton spent more than $200,000 on Mayfield Strategy Group for the construction of her presidential Web site.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has been the loudest voice among the presidential candidates when it comes to breaking the cycle of politics as usual, but he, too, has spent considerable sums on political pros.

Obama dropped $106,000 on pollsters in the first quarter; $94,000 went to Paul Harstad, while $12,500 was disbursed to Cornell Belcher's Brilliant Corners. The third Obama pollster -- Joel Benenson -- received no money in the first three months of the year.

Aside from polling, Obama's other significant consulting expense was $28,600 to AKP Media & Message -- the media firm founded by Obama senior political strategist David Axelrod. Axelrod's partner in the firm, David Plouffe, is Obama's campaign manager.

In contrast to his two main rivals for the Democratic nod, Edwards spent no money on polling in the first quarter. He did, however, spend more than $160,000 on media production, $32,000 of which went to Marius Penczner, who is overseeing Edwards's media campaign. Penczner received $45,000 in media consulting fees in the period.

Staff writer Matt Mosk and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company