Shop Talk: The changing face of the consulting business

Shop Talk: The changing face of the consulting business
With the political business in transition, here's how four campaign veterans see it.

This issue's shoptalkers: Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm; Tad Devine, partner at the Democratic media firm Devine Mulvey; Jim Innocenzi, president of Sandler-Innocenzi, a Republican media firm; and John Rowley, partner at the Democratic media firm Fletcher Rowley.

C&E: Looking back at the 2012 cycle, what stood out the most for all of you?

Whit Ayres: Unfortunately, it was not terribly surprising. 2012 was the year the changing demographics caught up with Republicans. It’s been pretty obvious that it’s been coming for years and years and years, but eventually the obvious becomes apparent. And this was the year when the obvious changes became apparent to virtually every Republican elected.

John Rowley: So you felt like even down ticket from the presidential race that was nipping at the heels? Ayres: Absolutely. And it’s something that we obviously have to deal with if we want to remain competitive as a national political force.

Tad Devine: I think technology is just changing so much of what we do. This was true not just in the campaigns I worked on, but in the big campaign that we all witnessed. Look at the incredible targeting that occurred at the presidential level—we’re moving beyond the polling we used to rely on and getting much more sophisticated when it comes to figuring out where voters are. Living in Virginia, the Obama campaign came to my door four or five times and I was really impressed that they were out there that much. Also, the flood of money was significant. Having worked for John Kerry and having run a presidential campaign for $100 million in a general election, it’s amazing to think of what you can do with six or seven times that amount. That’s why the Obama campaign could have 54 people in their IT department. It’s unbelievable.

And the targeting is not just at the national level. My firm did a lot of local races, and I’m just amazed now at how television advertising, which used to be thought of as too expensive to deal in lower level races, can now be targeted in very precise ways within individual districts through cable systems. You can get the power of television without the enormous cost of broadcast television buying. And the last aspect of the technology is the fact that everybody has an iPhone or some kind of device that not only allows them to communicate back and forth but also to witness. In one of our races, we had video from a meeting of a state representative candidate who got up and lied in front of a bunch of people. Well, somebody had an iPhone there. We made a really powerful TV ad from that video. That is really changing the way the game is played at every level.

Rowley: With this whole body of knowledge we now have about targeting, one of the challenges is figuring out how to apply it on a smaller scale. When you’re talking about state and local level campaigns, what’s doable and what’s not? Think back to the days when these were mano-a-mano affairs; it was us versus the other candidate and we were either going to kick their ass in broad daylight or not. Now, instead of boxing one-on-one, it’s five-on-five basketball. You have The Chamber of Commerce vs. organized labor or the party committees. It makes me wonder, when you’re on the advocacy side, what the quality of the work really is if you’re not accountable to the candidate. And frankly, whatever your influence is it ends up divided by three or four or five because of all the outside groups.

Also, earned media is just having no impact in some of these races. Some of the Republican campaign committees have gotten to the point where they won’t even do editorial boards. They’re playing hide the candidate and it’s working because the earned media just isn’t influencing a lot of these races. I do a lot of work in the Midwest and the South and some pretty red areas. I was surprised what a lasting impact Obama and Obamacare had on Democrats in places where there were red waves. Even in Oklahoma and Tennessee and places where we historically have won as Democrats on the state level. It just didn’t matter what we did or what we said. We just weren’t going to defeat the Republican as long as the opponent came back and said, “He’s for Obamacare.”

Jim Innocenzi: I like to look at this from a little bit of a different perspective. I agree with you guys about the dissemination of the message, and I agree totally on the demographics. But I think it’s even more basic than this. On the Republican side we need to have a message. We don’t have a message. Let’s just say both sides get to an equal playing field in terms of dissemination because I’ve got to believe the Republicans are going to wake up. If we don’t have a message it doesn’t matter because it just becomes white noise. I saw it in every race that we did this cycle. The last month was white noise because of all the third party stuff and all the presidential stuff. It was almost like it was baked by October 10 and it really didn’t matter. We don’t have a message that’s relevant anymore. I think for a while there with Reagan and both Bushes, we knew how to talk to people. Now we’re back to being the party of the green eye shades again. We’re talking about numbers that I don’t think are consequential on a micro-level to voters.

Rowley: Richard Nixon used to have this famous saying about Republicans having to fake right for the primary and then go left in the general. I don’t see any of the moving back to the middle from Republicans at any level. Whether it was Romney or people running for Congress, I don’t know how you continue to stay on a message that feels tailored so much to the Tea Party, not even to a conservative independent base of 50 plus one. Maybe that’s just my perception as a partisan Democrat.

Ayres: But let’s look at where the message is working. The red states are getting redder and it’s going farther and farther down the ballot. Look at Tennessee. Republicans added seven state Senate seats to the point where they now have, I believe, over three quarters of the seats in both the House and the Senate. So the message is working really well in red America and you’re getting resistance to changing that message nationally from red America. The problem is that it’s not the message that sells to a majority of American voters anymore.

Innocenzi: That’s exactly right. You could have looked two years ago and known the 10 or 12 states that we had to play in to win in 2012. The message from red America didn’t work in those 10 or 12 states because they weren’t as deep red as you needed them to be. You have to come up with a better message.

Ayres: We are in many ways in exactly the same place the Democrats were in 1989. They lost five of the last six presidential elections, the left seemed to have a stranglehold on the party and the people on the left were arguing not to change because they said, “We don’t need two Republican parties.” But then Bill Clinton came along and bingo. He said, “I’m for the death penalty, I’m for welfare reform and I’m for all these things the far left is not.” Before you knew it, Democrats were in charge. We are in the flipside of that 1989 environment right now. We have lost five of the last six presidential elections and the conservative wing of the party is resisting any change.

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