Coming Down from the Ivory Tower

Coming Down from the Ivory Tower
Where academics get it wrong about consultants and why we should be working together.

There was one question that totally stumped me early in my political career and it helped push me toward a life in academics: “Whose kin are you?”

It was 1998. I was fresh out of college working as a campaign manager on two state Senate races in the rural South Carolina low country. I figured after running campaigns on campus and taking an elections class under Professor Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, I was ready for anything in the field. Instead, I found myself on a ramshackle front porch in 100-degree heat with a woman who could care less about my canvassing duties (or my candidate) and she was asking me a question I didn’t know how to answer. Just whom was I related to in that small town that would give me reason to be on her front porch trolling for votes? “Whose kin are you?”

I learned right then that there’s a limit to what the academic experience can teach you about campaigns without getting some real political practitioners involved. 

I went on to work plenty of other races in the United States and abroad, earning a PhD in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Throughout that time, however, one glaring truth was abundantly clear: Academics and political practitioners were not talking to each other at all. 

It led me to embark on the research project that became Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. The book, published in August by Westview Press, tackles that which divides academics and practitioners: What’s the difference between how academic theory suggests campaigns should be run and how they actually are?

Theory vs. Practice

The rise of celebrity consultants in the 1990s (think James Carville), along with movies like “Wag the Dog,” “Primary Colors” and “Bullworth” brought forth a whole new generation that views political management as a viable and practical career. Most college professors, however, don’t have any real experience in political campaigns. In fact, it’s shocking how political scientists don’t see a problem with the fact that basic theories on candidates, policy positions, messaging, negative advertising and Internet strategy have no input from actual practitioners. At the same time, most campaign managers and consultants will tell you that academics don’t know squat about politics. The practitioners tend to view academics the same way professional football players view the guys who programmed the latest Madden NFL videogame: interesting nerds who can only make charts and tables because they’ve never really been out in the field.

Both attitudes are a shame since there is a great deal to learn from one other, assuming the information is presented in a way that speaks to both communities. That’s where I hope my work will come in. The book was the result of my being one of the few academics out there who had actually run a modern campaign but at the same time was grounded in cutting edge theory and research. I wrote the book with the goal of identifying the difference between what political science classes say you have to do to win a campaign and what campaign managers actually do in the field. 

In 2006, I began conducting the “C.A.M.P.” (Consultant Attitudes on Management and Practices), which surveyed political consultants, managers and practitioners during every election cycle to see how they did their jobs. My research team contacted campaigns in all 50 states asking if members of the staff would be willing to fill out a short anonymous Internet survey about their campaign practices. The response was fantastic with over 300 consultants responding in every election cycle survey.

We cast a pretty wide net to get as diverse a field of consultants and managers as possible, everyone from statewide political directors for presidential campaigns to the public school teacher who takes a semester off every two years to run his wife’s state House campaign. The work reveals some valuable insights for academics and strategists alike.

What Academics Get Right

We quizzed consultants on political science theories on candidates, messaging, policy positions, negative advertising and Internet strategy. I ran statistical analyses on the results to determine which theories in political science were actually capturing what was happening out in the real world of campaigns. It turns out there are a couple of things academics get right.

Political science does a pretty good job of capturing what traits voters actually see as most important in candidates over time and, for the most part, that syncs with the way in which strategists are presenting their candidates to the voting public. Asked to analyze the importance of intelligence, competence, integrity and empathy, consultant responses correlated well to existing political science theory.

Political scientists also do well in identifying why candidates pick the positions they do and what works best for a presidential year election versus an off-year contest. Research on the influence and impact of the Internet on campaign strategy is also surprisingly up to date and accurate. Just about any work by Bentley University’s Jeff Gulati or Lynda Lee Kaid’s recent Techno Politics in Presidential Campaigning will give you a wider picture of the strengths and weaknesses of online before you fork over cash to your digital team.  

Strategists may argue that all politics is local and unique, but political science shows a lot of what is happening out there can be explained by theory. Of course, academics missed more than they hit.

What Academics Get Wrong

We found that political science research on negative advertising reflects real campaigns about as well as Olive Garden reflects real, old country Italian cooking. Most political scientists can’t really define a negative ad and thus all political media is blamed for public cynicism and a lack of civility in public discourse.

My research shows that most political practitioners distinguish between “negative” and “attack” advertising even if they don’t realize it. There’s a difference between a hard-hitting contrast ad and a pure attack ad, which typically bends the truth and isn’t likely to pass your local newspaper’s fact check blog. Political science misses the boat on this and as a result can mischaracterize the impact of such advertising.

Political scientists consistently argue that Republicans launch more attack ads than Democrats and that their ads focus more on character issues than policy issues. None of that comes out in the wash when you actually include political professionals in your analysis. Our research found Democrats launch more character attacks than Republicans by a wide margin, while Republicans actually launch more policy-based attacks.

The twist is that Republicans see policy as a direct reflection of character. A GOP campaign may paint support for slots or gambling terminals as immoral, but a Democratic campaign may see the funds as a way to help failing public schools. Republicans need to realize that voters use character to evaluate policy, not the other way around.

Lastly, political science work really tells us noting about how to actually win a campaign. Sure there’s data and trends on the economy and how much money you raise, but if you actually want to know what it takes to win it’s pretty hard to figure out without surveying consultants. Our research looked at what variables contribute the most to winning and losing, including come-from-behind wins by candidates and candidates who lost the general election after having a post-primary lead. Running a statistical analysis of winning and losing practitioners across various campaigns gave us a delicate cocktail of messaging, Internet strategy and demographics that offers candidates the best chance to win, not from theory, but from the mouths of consultants in the field.

Where We Go from Here

Political consultants and academics are not going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya anytime soon, but there are some areas where real collaboration could be taking place that is practical, sensible and helpful to both fields.

Develop a Campaign Reading list: Consultants would do well to talk with local political scientists to find out what books their staff should be reading to be on the cutting edge of state politics. Every state has flagship public college with a grizzled old professor who’s written a book about the inner workings of state politics.

Use local academics for research: Perhaps your state party won’t fund a poll in your county executive race: Ask a local college professor instead. Every reputable political science department has at least one pollster who would love the chance to conduct a poll and collect data that could be used in future research and in the classroom. Plus, these interactions work great as a tool for recruiting student volunteers.

Attend Conferences: The campaign season is long and busy and you barely have time to sleep let alone attend conferences, but taking the time to attend an academic conference or two could be a great benefit to your campaign. Political science conferences often have a combination of academics, technocrats and journalists, all of whom could help you develop strategy and make important campaign contacts in short order. Academics share theories, but they also donate heavily to campaigns.

Expand Your Research: Political Scientists need to get more creative in their research agendas and be less ideological (on the right and the left). Academics rarely involve political professionals when researching campaigns and when they do they tend to only tap into their own network of contacts. It’s one thing to crunch numbers about what Republicans raised versus Democrats; it’s entirely another to speak with a state party director to find out why they envision strategy the way they do. Further, my research shows that over 60 percent of consultants see a strong connection between how someone campaigns and how they will govern in office, so any political scientist who does not draw connections between the two is producing incomplete results.  

The old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach” may have a little validity in political science, but it doesn’t have to. Our research demonstrates that there are political scientists out there who can firmly straddle academia and the sausage making of daily campaigning without compromising or talking down to either side. If only I had written this book years ago, I might’ve known what to say standing on that porch back in the summer of ‘98.

Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of political science at Hiram College and author of One Day to Sell: Political Consultants and Campaigns. He works as political commentator and analyst for outlets in the U.S. and abroad. He also serves as politics editor for the Source magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson or at his website

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