When Amy Sullivan wrote her renowned “Fire the Consultants!” piece for WaMo back in 2005, she thought the problem of a consultant class with zero accountability was mainly a Democratic plague. Now the notoriety of Republican pollster John McLaughlin—and perhaps the dreadful 2012 record of Karl Rove—is making it clear that the political consulting biz may represent a bipartisan phenomenon, and even an example of market failure. At The Upshot, Brendan Nyhan takes a fresh look at the research:
A closer look at the research on political consultants suggests that Mr. McLaughlin’s experience is typical. Firm reputations and client relationships are highly consistent over time and show little responsiveness to results, particularly in terms of the share of the vote that a client receives, a much more informative metric than wins and losses.
Why is the campaign consultant market so inefficient? First, it suffers from what social scientists call an asymmetric information problem. The buyers (candidates) know much less about the service being provided than the sellers (consultants) — the same reason that consumers have a hard time making informed choices on health care. As a result, consultants are often hired based on their prominence or relationships with party insiders rather on than their past performance or other measures of quality.
Second, there are few good sources of data about firm performance. Consultant client lists are often not broadly publicized, preventing firms from being held accountable for their performance in past campaigns. Though a few high-profile failures like Mr. McLaughlin’s receive substantial attention, many other relationships may not be well known, preventing candidates or other clients from learning about a consultant’s performance.
What I’d add to Nyhan’s analysis is something that wasn’t quite as huge when Sullivan was writing about consultants: the ability to self-promote via political media. Fox News (and to a lesser extent, other outlets like MSNBC and CNN) has given vast free advertising to various “strategists” who provide the illusion of insider access to campaign war rooms. It’s what I’ve always called the Jiveass Jamboree, and the more shameless one of these “strategists” happens to be, the more effectively he or she can monetize all that instant availability to the cameras by serving as “consultants” to the poor rich rubes who are impressed by it.
The vast expansion of non-candidate-directed paid media in just the last few cycles has also probably made it easier for stars of the Jiveass Jamboree to find a paycheck. On the Republican side, the long-term objective of many very rich people to change the tone and context of American politics may well mean short-term wins and losses just aren’t as important as they once were.
While Democratic campaigns and independent or “issues” operations are hardly immune to the Jiveass Jamboree, it’s apparent the example of the two successful Obama campaigns has instilled a new respect for data and results and a corresponding skepticism about celebrity consultants peddling the same old self-serving approaches. Presidential campaigns tend to be the real test of what parties and candidates—and donors—value. So it will pay to watch the 2016 campaigns in both parties closely to see if the usual suspects reappear between TV gigs.
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