When Elizabeth Warren announced that she had raised $19 million in the second quarter of the year, putting her behind only Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden for that period, it was a surprise.
Back in February, Warren made a risky decision, announcing that she would not hold any of the high-dollar fundraisers or do the fundraising calls with wealthy donors that candidates typically rely on. Her finance director objected so strongly to the decision that he resigned.
As Alex Thompson of Politico reports, Warren is trying to see what else about traditional campaign organization she can do without:
The campaign has gone without an outside polling firm, and says it has no plans to hire one, even though it is standard operating procedure for most serious candidates. Instead of initially stockpiling resources for a home-stretch TV ad blitz, she's amassed a payroll of 300-plus staffers in the early months of the campaign — overhead that could deplete her coffers if her fundraising ever falters.
And now, the campaign told POLITICO that it is shunning the typical model for producing campaign ads, in which outside firms are hired and paid often hefty commissions for their work. Instead, Warren’s campaign is producing TV, digital and other media content itself, as well as placing its digital ad buys internally.
Could 2020 be the year candidates break the back of the political consulting industry?
We shouldn’t exaggerate — there are still going to be political consultants, simply because mounting a campaign is a complex task that requires expertise. But it’s also the case that as an industry, political consulting sucks huge amounts of money out of campaigns while often providing little of value.
Most importantly, it often pushes candidates toward decisions and kinds of campaigning that twist the democratic process into something none of us should want. Candidates are not only getting wise to how the system works, they’re realizing that it’s easier than ever to find ways around it.
I say this as someone who has a number of friends — smart, competent, ethically minded people — who are political consultants of one kind or another. I also worked for a political consulting firm for a couple of years as a young man in the 1990s. The high point of my time in the industry may have been when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could draw a chalk line around my body for a photo shoot simulating a murder scene, to be used in one of the many, many direct mail pieces we produced evoking the fear of rampant crime.
But the political consulting industry has certain biases that are then transferred over to their clients. There’s a bias toward the simplest messages, and the ones that play on negative emotions. There’s also a bias toward what’s easy and straightforward, and what costs more in money than in time.
So for instance, while there are firms that specialize in grass-roots organizing, that’s difficult and labor intensive, so it’s often given less priority than advertising. If you hired a general consultant to run your campaign, he will in turn hire his friends to do the campaign’s polling, media and other tasks. What you may not realize is that those friends may have given him a kickback for hiring them.
And they’ll all be pushing you to spend as much as possible on their corner of the budget, so they make more profits. On this score the media consultants are the worst, because they charge commissions on every ad buy.
This is the system Warren seems to have been trying to break free from. As a group the consultants would much rather you do what Warren didn’t do: Raise the money first so you can afford your TV ads, then build a field operation with what you have left. Warren reversed that, putting just about everything she had into hiring staff to do field work in Iowa, and gambling that it would build support that would eventually result in more money coming in. So far it seems like a reasonable bet.
Or consider the story of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blacklist. In March, the DCCC announced that it would refuse to do business with any consulting firm that worked for any candidate challenging a Democratic incumbent in a primary. The way the system works is that the DCCC is a kind of clearinghouse for consulting contracts in House races, and if you’re in that business, you need to be on good terms with the committee or you’ll find it hard to get clients. What’s even better is if you have a buddy at the DCCC who sends clients your way.
But in an era where many of the tools of campaigns are less expensive than ever — you can create a terrific web ad with an iPhone and some readily available software — more candidates are asking why they need to spend all that money on consultants.
That’s especially true for insurgent candidates who realize that consultants tend to favor essentially conservative approaches, not based on expanding the electorate or forcing new issues onto the agenda but based on accepting the political landscape as it is and trying to find a path of least resistance through it. And there’s no client they love more than an incumbent coasting to an easy win, who will spend plenty of money and help them get more clients in the future.
If Warren can be successful circumventing the consultant class, and other high-profile insurgents such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) win races doing the same thing, it will keep chipping away at the assumption that you can’t run a race without hiring a bunch of party-approved consultants. The ones who are actually great at what they do will still succeed. As for the rest of them? Good riddance.