Super PACs and mega-firms

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The future of the political consulting business?


When it comes to picking a consulting firm, candidates increasingly seek specialization, while larger companies and issue groups are more likely to gravitate toward mega-firms. That’s according to Steve McMahon, co-founder of the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies.

“Big companies tend to go more toward big firms because there’s stability and there’s depth and all the things that companies want,” McMahon said Monday at C&E’s Art of Political Campaigning Conference. “And candidates tend to want, and I say this with the highest respect, a bunch of cowboys who are sweating on their holsters every day and sometimes shooting at each other. But you manage that because it’ll give you a better product.” 

McMahon and Mike DuHaime, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, discussed the state of the campaign industry at C&E’s annual conference. The two strategists—and former C&E Rising Stars—led the discussion ahead of recognition for this year’s recipients.      

When it comes to public affairs firms, both strategists agreed—they’re increasingly placing a premium on the bipartisan consulting that’s attractive to larger corporate clients. In a bipartisan political system, with bipartisan boards, it’s in the best interest of those clients to have the right and left working together.

“I think the public affairs firms are going much more bipartisan,” DuHaime said. “Bigger people are more comfortable with that; they are comfortable with people who represent both sides of the aisle.”

One of the other narratives dominating the campaign season thus far is what impact well-heeled Super PACs are having at the presidential level and on down the ballot.   

“The campaigns no longer control the conversation, so the conversation occurs based on who has the most money and who has the willingness or the eagerness to start a conversation on the subject of their choosing,” said McMahon. Given the expected squeeze for TV airtime in battleground states as the fall nears, the Democrat offered up a tongue-in-cheek business idea: buy up a bunch of airtime in key states and start selling to the highest bidder once ad time starts to become scarce.     

Another concern over the long-term impact of Super PACs is the possibility that the groups may contribute to a campaign talent drain. Given better pay and a more straightforward focus on bigtime TV buys, DuHaime predicted the quick development of a cottage industry around Super PAC work.   

And having both started consulting firms early in their careers, McMahon and DuHaime offered some advice for the crowd's up-and-coming operatives: In an industry where strategists are judged on reputation and success, don't hang a shingle too early. 

“A lot of people want to run a business, and there are a lot of people who fail because they jump a little bit early,” DuHaime said. “You do have to make sure you’ve got some established relationships and some wins under your belt.”


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