Throughout history, politicians have always needed advice, whether it was formal or informal. Cicero, Roman author (106 BC - 43 BC), was probably one of the earliest advisers to politicians. This has been no less true during the history of the United States. The extent to which Political Consultants have been involved in the political process is somewhat difficult to discern. Political consulting is conducted largely out of public view and often without detailed records. Despite this, there are still records and accounts that help us construct a picture of the history of political consulting. The field began with the fight over the ratification of the United States Constitution, and it then evolved over the past two centuries until there has been an explosion in the need for political consultants in today’s modern political environment.
After the Revolutionary War, the United States approved the Articles of Confederation as the new foundation of the law. It soon became apparent that this style of government was not effective in performing the essential functions of government. The country then set about revising the Articles only to, in the end, write a completely new document. This new document, the Constitution, sparked the first national political campaign in the young country’s history. This tension created conditions under which the expertise of political consultants was required.
The ratification of the Constitution caused two major groups to come into conflict with one another—the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The former were in favor of a stronger national government while the latter favored a weaker one. During this fight, the advocates for ratification of the Constitution were able to test various arguments and discover those that worked and those that did not. In effect, advocates in the first states to debate ratification became consultants to those who debated ratification later. Political consulting had transcended state lines and became national: advocates in the early ratifying debates shared their techniques and tactics with those in later debates.
By 1796, the nation faced its first contested presidential election. It was in this election that John Beckley became America’s first campaign manager. Beckley, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, took on the task of becoming Jefferson’s political consultant by performing all activities consultants perform for candidates today. Beckley wrote campaign materials, helped to ensure distribution of those materials, and acquired the help of prominent citizens to speak on Jefferson’s behalf. He spent particularly close attention to what he considered the swing state of Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, in fact, Beckley sent out thousands of political handbills, over 30,000 sample ballots, and distributed copies of major Jefferson speeches to strategic places within the state. Due to Beckley’s work, Jefferson easily carried Pennsylvania, although he ultimately lost the election.
In the early years of the republic, political consultants were largely volunteers. However, that began to change with the 1828 election which stands out as an early precursor of contemporary political campaigning. In 1828, we begin to see the utilization of the services of a variety of professional political consultants. Presidential candidate Andrew Jackson enlisted Senator Martin Van Buren as his political consultant. Van Buren, who already had put together his own political machine within his own home state of New York, soon began to enlist the remnants of William Crawford’s support in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. His organization also made use of pamphlets, handbills, broadsides, and other printed literature as well as scheduling pseudo-events and photo opportunities. These events involved food, drinks, parades, songs, and the distribution of campaign literature. Van Buren’s organization even reached down to the county and precinct levels with extensive get-out-the-vote efforts. The Jackson campaign was able to enlist the help of the media with the backing of approximately 300 newspapers. Van Buren was able to put together an organization that performed all of the functions necessary to help Andrew Jackson become president of the United States. Clearly, Van Buren became the forerunner to both the modern general consultant and field operation consultant.
The type of campaign organization formed in the 1828 election continued to grow later. By 1840, political parties were providing candidates with the essential services necessary to wage and win campaigns. It was in large part the party’s ability to help the candidate communicate with voters, the overriding function of today’s political consultants, that gave parties their overwhelming importance in political campaigns. This era is often referred to as the “organization era” of politics due to the fact parties had such an important impact on elections.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century and up until the early 20th century, political parties were the providers of political consulting services. A prime example of their importance occurred in the 1896 election. In this election, William Jennings Bryan ran as the Democratic nominee for President. During his campaign, Bryan took advantage of the United States vast network of railroads to travel over 18,000 miles and speak to over five million people. Despite Bryan’s efforts the Democratic Party was underfunded and provided Byran with little support. On the other hand, William McKinley traveled very little, but was backed by a very effective Republican Party organization. On the behalf of McKinley, the Republican Party provided over 1400 speakers to represent him all across the country, distributed over 250 million pieces of campaign literature, and benefited from the support of numerous newspapers. Due in large part to the Republican Party’s ability to provide McKinley with superb political consulting services, McKinley easily won the race.
The early to mid-20th century brought about two new technologies that had a great effect on the political campaign environment—radio and television. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting President to address the entire nation through the radio. From that point on, Presidents continued to use the radio more extensively. Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of this new technology more than any other President when he engaged in his fireside chats. Television also gained importance during this time. In 1950, the first political campaign commercial was aired in the Connecticut Senate race and, two years later, the first national political commercial was aired by the Dwight Eisenhower campaign. The use of radio and television created a need for experts in the field of political media consulting. At the time, these needs were often met by professional advertising firms. In 1952, both Dwight Eisenhower and Aldai Stevenson used advertising agencies as consultants to help in the production of television commercials as well as getting advice on when to air those commercials.
Professional political consulting was thus born in the first half of the 20th century. Specifically, in 1933, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter joined forces to form Campaigns, Inc. in the state of California. Campaigns Inc. provided a full range of consulting services to candidates just as many consulting firms do today. Prior to forming Campaigns, Inc. Whitaker and Baxter began their consulting career by working on a local referendum campaign. After a successful campaign, they formed their political consulting firm which worked on seventy-five political campaigns from 1934 to 1958. Campaigns Inc. served as a model for the contemporary political consulting business.
Opinion polling was also born during this time. In 1946, New York congressional candidate Jacob Javits employed the services of the Elmo Roper Organization to carry out opinion polling of his constituency. From this point onward, polling gained greater and greater importance for political candidates as well as office holders. In fact, the demand for opinion polling consultants has only continued to increase.
The contemporary era of the political consultant was born in the 1960s. After the 1968 election, the political rules changed dramatically requiring new skills that the typical advertising firm could no longer provide. And in 1969, the American Association of Political Consultants was created.
Three major events have signaled the beginning of the modern era. The first was the nomination of John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. Kennedy was able to become the Presidential nominee without an extensive amount of help from his party’s consultants. He hired his own range of consultants who were loyal to him and independent of the party. This was the beginning of the decline of the importance of parties, especially as in their consulting role. It was at this time that candidates became aware that they could build their own networks and organizations and still be successful.
The second event was campaign finance reform. Because of the reforms, candidates had to broaden the base of donors who would give smaller contribution amounts. Thus the need for fundraising consultants was created and only continued to grow as money gained greater importance in campaigns.
The third event involved communication technology. In fact, changes in communication technology have spawned an entire host of political consulting specialties. The specific technologies that have had the greatest impact are computers, internet (including blogging), and the ability to easily record and distribute video technology. Each of these areas requires an expertise that a layman is not equipped to provide to a candidate. Therefore there has been a rise in the demand for consultants who have expertise in gathering, storing, and collecting such related communication data.
Political consultants have always had a place in politics. Beginning with the battle over the ratification of the Constitution and the first contested Presidential election to today’s political world, political consultants have been making an impact on elections whether in the form of volunteer consultants, political parties’ organization and outreach, or independent professional consultants. As new technologies developed and continue to develop, so has the need for new specialties been developing. However, the goal and basic methodology has remained the same. It appears one thing is clear: as long as politicians have to compete in free elections, they will require assistance from political consultants who will advice them how to run a successful campaign.
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