Ever since the days of the Roman republic, when Quintus Tullius Cicero wrote a brief work titled “Little Handbook on Electioneering” for his brother Marcus, then a candidate for consul in Rome, political consultants have had a heavy presence in campaigns for public office.
In American history, these operatives have served in various political roles, from personal advisers of candidates to prominent leaders of partisan structures. Almost always, individual political consultants in the United States have been closely tied to the work of a single candidate or party; for obvious reasons, campaigns are hesitant to hire operatives who have previous experience in work for the other side.
Historically, American political consultants -- while they are usually free to help a variety of candidates within a given party -- have worked within the confines of the partisan parameters, and there have always been incentives for doing so. Continuing to work as operatives for political campaigns, or as advisers to political parties, enables consultants to make connections to other potential clients and sources of income.
Much has been said and written about the negative, polarizing influence of political consultants for candidates and campaigns. In 2004, David Dulio wrote in For Better or Worse?, a book about the role of hired advisers:
“...it is clear that when consultants enter a campaign they have a great deal of influence. Consultants’ advice is usually taken; they are paid for their expertise, and candidates do not like to see the dollars they worked so hard raising go to waste.” - For Better or Worse, page 34
Additionally, one only needs to look at the teams working for the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz to see that modern candidates in America are incredibly dependent on hired specialists to coordinate their political efforts.
Political consultants are often criticized for the way in which they seem to divide the American electorate, or at least make harsh, acidic comments about their employers’ rivals. Often, it seems that candidates are embarrassed more by what their operatives say than by what they themselves say.
There is merit to this idea; political consultants tend to encourage their candidates to emphasize policies and messages that only appeal to the party faithful, and a group of sympathetic independents that may be small, but is still large enough to barely win the election.
The result has been elections with lower voter turnout and winners with lower margins of victory. Some data indicates that the turnout rate among eligible voters in the United States has not exceeded 65% in over a century; meanwhile, the last time a presidential candidate won an election with a margin of victory of over 10% was in 1984 (Ronald Reagan’s re-election victory).At the same time, there should be concern about the rise of a new “breed” of political consultants; those who work for super PACs and are not officially affiliated with any party or candidate. Anu Narayanswamy of the Sunlight Foundation
wrote in January 2013 that super PACs have given rise to a “class of super consultants.”
One such consultant (though there are also a variety of liberal and progressive super-PAC operatives) is Karl Rove. In September 2012, Craig Unger wrote a profile of Rove for Vanity Fair, in which he observed that “with his keen eye for strategy and his ties to disaffected millionaires in the G.O.P. establishment, Rove was the first to seize the initiative” created by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed super PACs to raise an unprecedented amount of financing.
This new style of political consulting is far more polarizing even than the work of operatives who advise candidates and parties. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the super PAC with which Rove is affiliated, American Crossroads, spent over $104 million in the 2012 election season, $96 million of which was used solely to attack Democratic candidates.
While super PACs are legally forbidden from coordinating strategies with candidates or parties, they have allowed political consultants to create what the Sunlight Foundation’s Narayanswamy calls “shadow campaigns.” Free to raise massive amounts of money, consultants can then use that money for highly divisive purposes, often with partisan rancor being the only result.
Despite spending so much money attacking Democratic candidates for the Senate and the presidency. Rove’s American Crossroads group -- to continue using the example -- failed to build a Republican senatorial majority in 2012 or help Mitt Romney win the White House.
In the end, political observers in America should be concerned about what the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has allowed the political atmosphere to become, and about how political consultants, now armed with incredibly wealthy super PACs, can pursue electoral strategies that even startle traditional party and campaign operatives and polarize American voters.