With apologies to Winston Churchill, the tale of the Jeb Bush campaign might be summarized as “Never before have so few spent so much to achieve so little.”
Before suspending his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush and his team spent more than $125 million on political consultants, mostly those specializing in the production and placement of paid media. An analysis of Federal Election Commission filings for Bush’s campaign committee and super PAC, Right to Rise, shows that the vast majority of these expenditures were executed through two consulting firms — Oath Strategies and Revolution Agency — that together were responsible for more than 95 percent of the ad budget.
Although the vast majority of this money — more than $100 million — went to purchase air time on local television stations, the advertising barrage probably generated several million dollars in consulting fees and commissions (detailed expenditure data is available here).
Why did Bush spend so much on ads, especially given how little it seemed to help his ill-fated campaign? One reason may be because the super PAC Right to Rise was run by Mike Murphy, a Republican media consultant who served as a top adviser to Bush’s 1998 and 2002 gubernatorial campaigns. Murphy is also a founding partner of the Revolution Agency, the same consulting firm handling media for the campaign. The bulk of spending, almost 90 percent, passed through Oath Strategies. The firm remains something of a mystery, but Oath Strategies shares an address with another consulting firm, Media Ad Ventures, started by Brad Mont, who previously worked with Murphy.
It should come as no surprise that a super PAC run by a media consultant would direct resources toward advertising. However, campaign strategies are also shaped by the commercial incentives of the consulting industry. Advisers such as Murphy channel significant amounts of money to firms they directly own a stake in or those owned by their associates.
The Bush campaign is not alone in this feature. So far, presidential candidates have spent $400 million on consulting services, about three times as much as was spent at a similar period in the 2012 campaign. A look at how each campaign allocates money to firms tells us something about their strategy and the structure of the consulting industry.
Take Ben Carson’s campaign. The bulk of its spending has been directed toward consulting firms specializing in fundraising, including digital tools such as email solicitations and data analytics that have become a hallmark of contemporary campaigns. More than half of the $37 million his campaign paid to consultants went to just three firms, Eleventy Marketing Group, InfoCision and TMA Direct. All three have close ties to Carson advisers. Ken Dawson, chief marketing officer for Carson’s campaign, is president of Eleventy Marketing, a fundraising firm based in Akron, Ohio. Dawson’s previous employer was InfoCision, a telemarketing firm also based in Akron. Senior campaign adviser Mike Murray is president and chief executive of direct-mail specialist TMA Direct.
In some cases, influential figures surrounding the candidate, including big-money donors, shape how campaign resources are allocated. Ted Cruz’s campaign, for instance, paid $4.75 million so far to Cambridge Analytica, a research and data analytics firm started by Robert Mercer, who has given $11 million to the pro-Cruz super PAC Keep the Promise.
As in so many areas of this year’s campaign, Trump remains the outlier, managing to spend relatively little because of his ability to generate free media. The largest beneficiary of the Trump campaign thus far is Jones Day, a law firm specializing in compliance and financial consulting. Trump’s legal counsel, Donald McGahn, is also a partner at Jones Day, which has received about $500,000 in payments from the campaign.
On the Democratic side, several firms are profiting from their close ties to presidential candidates. Jim Margolis, media adviser for Hillary Clinton, is a founder of GMMB, a Democratic consulting firm that has billed the campaign more than $12 million. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has paid $1.7 million to the polling firm run by their chief strategist Joel Benenson.
The two Democratic campaigns also show the influence of consulting firms created by veterans of President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, especially those specializing in fundraising and digital tools. The Clinton campaign has paid Bully Pulpit Interactive, a firm started by the head of online advertising for Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, $5.8 million. Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign has paid another Obama campaign spin-off, Revolution Messaging, $9.3 million to build a formidable online fundraising machine.
At the current pace, the price tag for this year’s presidential race could exceed $4 billion. This figure should remind us that politics is a business and that the current presidential campaign presents a lucrative opportunity for the handful of consulting firms able to cash in on the record spending.
It may be difficult at this stage to predict each party’s nominee, much less whom the next president will be, but the current campaign illustrates something approaching an iron law of American politics: the consultant always wins.
Adam Sheingate is associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy.”