This issue's shoptalkers: Rose Kapolczynski, president of the LA-based Democratic firm Rose Kapolczynski Consulting; Adam Probolsky, chairman and CEO of the Republican polling firm Probolsky Research, LLC; Jason Roe, partner at the Republican firm Revolvis; and Garry South, principal at the Santa Monica-based Garry South Group.
C&E: Compare political consultants in California to consultants in Washington. Is it a difference in style, attitude?
Jason Roe: It’s hard to put my finger on a style difference, but it’s easier to be a consultant when you’re based in Washington, D.C. the same way it’s easier to be based in Sacramento—that’s where the money and decision makers are. I go back to D.C. once every six weeks because, if I’m not there, I’m certainly not going to get access. You have folks that, whether they do a good job or not, are almost guaranteed certain contracts. There is a bit of backscratching in the industry.
Rose Kapolczynski: I don’t really think of it as a cultural difference. Washington D.C. is a different place than California, but in the working styles, I don’t really see much of a difference. I do agree with Jason that being present is really important and Washington and Sacramento are where a lot of decisions are made.
C&E: In terms of having a brick and mortar office, do you need to have an actual presence there or can you just fly into D.C. for meetings?
Kapolczynski: I think that’s much less important in the digital age. So much of the work now is done by emails and conference calls rather than through in-person meetings. Sometimes that’s to the detriment of decision making processes and developing a successful strategy; people lean on those tools too much. There are times when you just need a face-to-face meeting to hash things out. But I think brick and mortar offices are a lot less important now than they were at one time.
South: There are a lot of Washington-based consultants who have cast a covetous eye on California and shifted someone out here to work out of their house in Pasadena and try to claim they have a West Coast office. In general, that doesn’t work well. I think one of the classic case studies in how Washington-based folks are mesmerized with Washington-based folks is Bob Shrum. I mean, here’s a guy who, at last count, has lost not one, but seven presidential elections. But as recently as 2004, he was still being fought over. There are consultants in Sacramento, particularly on the Republican side, who have been in the business 34 years and never won a statewide campaign. Yet, they continue to be looked at as sort of the premier consultants to go to.
Kapolczynski: That might make it sound like there’s no opportunity to break into California politics, but I think there is a lot of opportunity due to term limits. There are still people who are moving up and out and find there is no place left to go. So when you end up with a huge multicandidate field, like some of the council races here in LA where you have 13 candidates running, maybe half of them want to hire consultants and campaign staff. Term limits are creating opportunities here that don’t exist in other states.
C&E: What makes the California consulting market distinctive from the rest of the industry? Is it the initiative work and the folks who just focus on that?
Roe: I think so, at least on the Republican side. We know who the initiative consultants are, and rarely do they cross into candidate campaigns. We specialize in candidate campaigns, and while we feel perfectly confident that we could do initiative campaigns, we’re not really in pursuit of that. I think the guys that fill my niche, and Republican consulting in California, are all the same four or so on the candidate side. Independent expenditure stuff is whoever is left—whoever wasn’t good enough to get hired by the candidates to begin with. We’ve been seeing that in a lot of our races. All the good consultants get conflicted out and then whoever is left gets picked up by independent expenditures. Though at some point I think candidate consultants decide they’re sick of dealing with a candidate and decide to consciously move into initiative work to not have to put up with all the grief.
Probolsky: From the pollster perspective, it doesn’t matter to me, because I usually have one of them in between me and the candidate, or between me and the initiative. I don’t have those failings with the campaigns because the campaign manager does the interface with the candidate. I only have to speak to the candidate when we’re reporting the data. So as pollsters we’re kind of ambiguous and we can really go either way.
Kapolczynski: One of the reasons the consulting business is so large in California is just the sheer amount of money in politics here. In some states, you have lots of money from corporate interests; here, some of the biggest funders of initiative campaigns are labor unions. The California Teachers Association and SEIU are usually in the top five spenders on initiatives and legislative races. So, given the size of our state, the wealth here on all sides of the aisle and the interest in influencing public policy, you just see races for city council or for the legislature attracting massive amounts of money both directly into the campaigns and into independent expenditures.
Roe: To prove Rose’s point with an anecdote about California: my senior year of high school, as I was preparing to go to college, my dad who had spent his lifetime working in Republican politics asked what I wanted to study. I told him I wanted to do campaign managing. Well, this was 1988 and he said that was ridiculous—it’s not full time work. What he didn’t know was that I was going to move to California where it actually is full-time work year round.
C&E: Is there a secret sauce to having a successful firm here in California?
Kapolczynski: Be good at what you do. South: Win some elections.
Probolsky: The market is big enough. I think there is room for anyone who wants to come in. Yes, you have to be good, you have to be able to win, but if you’re just a kid who shows up from Chicago and wants to open up a shop you can probably do 10 campaigns next cycle if you want to hustle. You can absolutely show up and embrace the environment—both the Democrat and Republican side. You show up and we’re going to put you to work. And 18 months later, there’s no reason you can’t be on staff somewhere or be a chief of staff for a legislator.
South: I moved here in 1991 and had never lived in California for a day and never done a California campaign. Within two years, I was running what was ultimately a successful campaign for lieutenant governor. Rose mentioned the council district races here, where in some cases you had 12 or 13 candidates. I can tell you that there is no way when you have 13 candidates running in a council district in LA that you’re going to get 13 quality consultants available to do those races. I couldn’t mention off the top of my head 13 consultants in California.
The reality is that some of these candidates get stuck with inexperienced and sub-par consultants that don’t serve their interests. This happened with friends of mine who were running in certain council districts. They ended up with bad consultants who didn’t know what they were doing and screwed up their races completely. So there’s enough of a market here that if you’re good and you kind of bubble to the top with a couple of races here and there, you can live the rest of your life here pretty well.
Kapolczynski: My story is similar to Garry’s. I moved here to run Barbara Boxer’s first Senate campaign. And my California experience totaled all of two weeks working for Gary Hart for president in 1984.
Probolsky: We also have this strong general consultant, weak campaign manager structure in a lot of California races. In that model, it’s the GC that picks the other vendors—the pollster, the mail house, etc. Whereas in other parts of the country you’ve got the strong campaign manager structure. In California you can get in much more easily as a weak campaign manager.
Kapolczynski: The other thing is that the money in California means there are more paid staffers on legislative campaigns and city council campaigns than in other places. There might actually be a paid field director on a legislative campaign, where in other states you just don’t have the money for that. State senate districts are bigger than congressional districts in California.
Roe: We have a full field staff in a targeted assembly race because we don’t have the volunteer motivation that we had a decade ago.
Kapolczynski: Even non-targeted races have paid staff. The sheer number of positions available at the entry level is large. A lot of people don’t want to have politics be their life, so a person who was a field director last year goes off to graduate school or goes into business and that opening exists again.
C&E: Given what we saw happen with Prop 8 and gay marriage, are people going to keep spending the same kind of money on initiative campaigns?
Probolsky: Most initiatives don’t have that kind of fundamental constitutional pressure to them. Most of them are revenue-based so I don’t think it will have much of an impact.
Kapolczynski: I agree. We have initiatives here because people want to change policy and they decide the initiative route is the most cost-effective way to do it. That’s not going to change. Most of them are unconstitutional from the start.
South: It doesn’t change the basic fact that there is a huge industry in California built up around the initiative process, and I don’t just mean consultants. I mean moneyed special interests, whether it be the insurance companies or whomever goes to the ballot to circumvent the legislature.
Now that you have two-thirds control of the legislature by the Democrats, I think there’s probably going to be more incentive on the business side, rather than less, to go to the ballot. The thinking is that with two-thirds control, [business interests] are not going to have the play they used to have when they could use the Republican minority to thwart things. So I would be really surprised if you see a diminution in the number of initiatives because of the Prop 8 ruling.
Roe: There’s probably going to be a slight curtailing in statewide ballot initiatives, but I don’t think it has anything to do with Prop 8. The number one thing is that I don’t think the people that fund these things are going to be willing to spend the money they have in the past, particularly on our side of the aisle. The reason is that they put up things that tested well in polling and thought they had a good message and all the resources they needed and then came up fat. I just don’t think people are willing to write the checks on the Republican side. Unfortunately, on our side, there’s also a little bit of a sense of accepting the Democratic majority in Sacramento and trying to navigate that, rather than trying to thwart it.
South: Starting in 2014, we’ll have a new situation that we haven’t had since 1972 in California. All ballot measures will be on the November ballot, not on the primary ballot. That changes the composition of the electorate. Conservative interests used to try to get things on the primary ballot thinking that turnout would be lower, particularly in a non-presidential year. They don’t have that option anymore. Conservative interests are going to have to think very carefully about putting things on the November ballot knowing that the turnout composition is going to be totally different.
C&E: A lot of California consultants don’t work much outside of the state. What’s the approach for you all?
South: We have more registered voters here than there are people living in 46 of the other 49 states. LA County is bigger than 42 states. There’s plenty of work here to keep anybody busy if they don’t want to get on three different fights to get to Altoona, Pennsylvania to work for some dipshit member of Congress. I want to say this though about the initiative business: It’s been my experience, particularly with ballot measures that originate out of Sacramento, there are a favored few on both sides of the aisle who almost automatically get handed that work. I have been shut out of campaigns because CTA didn’t want me involved. Organized labor just did a do-not-hire list that included several Democratic consultants, several main line Democratic pollsters and Jerry Brown’s own campaign strategist from the 2010 campaign, Steve Glazer. They did it because those consultants were involved in independent expenditure efforts where the candidate they were handling was not the labor candidate.
Probolsky: In a county supervisor race, there’s a decent chance that a couple million dollars will be spent, depending on the county. It’s not like you can’t make good money in campaigns running or working in a couple different big races. In California, we also have one really fascinating advantage that I don’t know if any other state has. We have something called the ballot designation. When my candidate is running for legislature, one of the first things we do is test ballot titles to see whether they should run as deputy district attorney, businessman, legislator. It’s a massive advantage in the process of explaining who your candidate is—those three words, or in the case of an elected official, the full description of their title. It doesn’t exist in any other state.
Kapolczynski: I think it’s true that it’s okay to be from D.C., but it’s not okay to work out of state if you’re from Los Angeles. I’ve done some work in the northwest in Washington and Oregon and I’ve done multiple interviews where people always ask, “You’re from Los Angeles, how can you understand Seattle?” Well, I did live in Seattle for eight years, and have done multiple successful campaigns there. But there’s still a cultural barrier.
Roe: Particularly up in Washington and Oregon there’s an anti-California bias.
Kapolczynski: And yet they hire D.C. consultants without any hesitation.
South: I do think the disadvantage in coming into some other place from California is the massive amounts of money that we’re used to dealing with here. I have friends that have run for state legislature in Missouri and if they raise $125,000 they think it’s great. You can’t even run for city council in LA with $125,000.
C&E: In terms of having a Republican win statewide, is there something that needs to change in the consulting world in order for that to happen?
Roe: It would be nice if Republicans in California tried anyone new. We’ve been using the same people since Pete Wilson was governor of California and I don’t mean that as a criticism. The state’s changed a lot. You have a lot of consultant-lobbyist types who aren’t really consultants all year. They’re consultants half the year and lobbyists half the year . The way you communicate with voters has changed so much over the past 10 years that I think the newer generation of consultants is in a better position to take advantage of it. The demographics in the state have changed so much, but our party has not changed with demographics. Now that doesn’t mean we’ve got to abandon principles on every single issue to match 100 percent what the electorate looks like, but we’re not running our campaigns anymore. We’ve gotten away from running the ground campaigns we were running when the party was still competitive. We’re not doing the engagement with millennials and minority voters that should be mandatory because you’ve got all these new consumers in the market and you’re not actually trying to sell a product to them.
C&E: So when you talk about the old guard, who are you talking about specifically?
Roe: Just look at every statewide campaign over the past decade. It’s the same guys that worked on the campaigns in the 90s—in some cases even the 80s. This isn’t really a criticism of them, but it hasn’t been working so it’s time to rotate the tires.
C&E: In terms of cultivating a client roster, Adam you’ve done Democrats and Republicans. Do you have to diversify in order to be successful?
Probolsky: Not necessarily. We also do a lot of corporate and government work, so the natural progression of our firm has been to work with labor and that sort of puts us into the Democratic side. I also grew up in Republican politics, so it allows me to do both. Going back to this chance of Republicans winning statewide, the first problem is not fixable by consultants. Only 29 percent of the voting population here is Republican, so you’ve got to start by focusing on the independent voters. There are also ways of talking to minority voters, specifically using languages. When we poll in California there’s always some other language. In San Jose there has to be Vietnamese or you’re not going to get the right numbers. If you’re polling in Diamond Bar, you have to do simple Mandarin and Korean.
I think that’s a big part of the consulting problem here. They have to start being comfortable doing foreign language mail, TV and radio. So many of our consultants are just, I don’t know if I’d call it lazy, but they just go by the same tried and true things that don’t work anymore. But even if you know what the message should be to Korean-speaking voters, the campaigns still stumble from there. They’ll send a piece of mail all in Korean to anyone with a Korean surname. The problem is if I’m born in the U.S. and I’m second or third generation, I may or may not speak Korean, but I’m probably going to be pissed that you sent something to me just in Korean. It takes a lot more effort than most consultants are willing to put in.
Kapolczynski: How do you deal with mail? I think that’s a really interesting puzzle of language and mail. I know that from Latino focus groups showing bilingual mail versus Spanish mail, some people who prefer Spanish only in the home get a Spanish-only mailer and feel like you think they don’t understand English.
Roe: I think you have to do bilingual because you don’t know just by a surname. We had a Latino candidate for city council in San Diego and his last name was Brown and when we looked at what the surname was, it was classified as black. So if you went by the surname you wouldn’t have even communicated with this person. One of the biggest mistakes that gets made on the Republican side is that we take English-language copy and translate it into Spanish. It’s the biggest mistake you can make. You’ve got to write it in Spanish.
Kapolczynski: When we did our negative [Carly] Fiorina ads in Spanish, we started from scratch partly because the concepts were complicated—Hewlett Packard laying off 30,000 workers. That just didn’t translate. So we completely redid the ad to focus more on education. We definitely kept our core message, but it did have a much different look and feel. We had Latino political consultants on our team who were always correcting the language and the images. At one point a stock image came on and our consultant said, “That’s a Puerto Rican. We need another photo.” So while we used our media consulting team to do the ads and they were terrific, we also had that cultural information from a consultant who helped us design it and make it more effective.
Probolsky: For the benefit of the readers who don’t realize how incredibly robust our voter file is in California, we know where you were born when you register to vote. We have these incredible data points of your age, gender and party and how often you vote. So I know if you’re 32 years old and you were born in Mexico, there’s a decent chance that you speak Spanish. If you’re 19 and born in Mexico, there’s a pretty good chance you’re just as well-versed in English. These data points don’t exist in other states. There are some states where you’re lucky to know whether a voter cast a vote in the last decade because the local election official just doesn’t bother to report it.
Kapolczynski: And that’s one of the reasons I asked about mail because some consultants say if you have a foreign-born, Spanish surname in a heavily Latino area, you should find some slice of the electorate to do Spanish only to. But I think it’s too risky.
Probolsky: Keep in mind that in the universe of polling people we end up having an exacerbated number of people who respond just in Spanish, because we’ll let them answer in whatever language they want. In their everyday lives, 90 percent of their conversations are in English. But in the home they feel much more comfortable speaking Spanish, so that’s what they choose to respond in.
South: There are a lot challenges in communicating with voters in Spanish, but it pales in comparison to the challenge of communicating with Asian American voters. Unlike Latinos who all speak English, Spanish or both; you have a fusion of languages among Asian Americans. With Chinese voters you not only have to deal with the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, you have to deal with the fact that now the Taiwanese use different symbols for the language. It’s not the simplified stuff that the People’s Republic of China has promulgated. You send out simplified stuff, it alienates Taiwanese. You send out traditional stuff, it’s a cue that you’re not targeting mainland Chinese. That doesn’t even take into account Japanese or Korean. In 2002, in the governor’s race, we became the first campaign to do spots in all the major Asian languages.
We were going to do an education spot, but when we went into the studio to get native speakers to do these scripts, a 27 and a half second English script was simply not susceptible to interpretation and translation into several of these languages in a way that made any sense. So we would try to truncate it. But when we started cutting it down in English, the translator would say, “This is not going to make any sense.”
Probolsky: With the Asian population, there’s a nuance where it’s not TV but radio. We have this great targeting ability to Asian populations; their media is less Americanized, so you have the ability to actually buy a half hour on Vietnamese radio. So instead of having to cut it down to 27 seconds, you have a half hour to talk your entire concept through and it only costs you $4,000 or $5,000 to talk to a large percentage of the population.
Roe: Particularly with the non-Latino population, you have these small clusters of different immigrant groups that live in California and for some reason all seem to have their own TV channel. When you get into the Asian markets, I think you’re less dependent on what you’re doing with broadcast media and more dependent on what you’re doing in very localized networks of communication that go on a much more local level. And that’s about having the right people get you into the right places and having those folks to help you navigate that. As an English speaking white boy, I don’t know what the right thing to say is.
Probolsky: You can find that person, but then all of a sudden, you find out they have the respect of 30 percent of the population, but not the other 70 percent.
Kapolczynski: One other thing on the business side—the move to the top-two system has meant twice as many campaigns in some safe districts. Most prominently, you saw the Berman-Sherman race last year where under our old system that would have been over in the primary. Now, you have to rerun the same race again. A large number of the districts in California used to be settled in the primary and then the general was basically no race run by either side. Is it good for democracy? Is it good for the candidates who are exhausted by these campaigns? Maybe not. But it has grown the cost of campaigns.
South: What’s going to be interesting is that 2014 will be the first time we have the top-two system in our statewide races. We had it for legislative and congressional in 2012. It’s very hard for me to conceive how Republicans end up in the top two in all eight of those statewide races. I think for the first time we’re going to have a couple of those races that are Democrat on Democrat in the fall, and that is a problem for Republicans.
Probolsky: Right now, a Republican can get the nod of support just because they’re willing to throw themselves up there and be that weak, worthless candidate who has no chance whatsoever. But now, you’ll see a call for better candidates.
South: I think the Meg Whitman example is a huge disincentive for self-funding candidates. She spent $180 million buying every consultant in the Western Hemisphere; she was a moderate woman and failed miserably.
Roe: Well, all of that is right but there was zero message. We don’t even know, because nothing was said. Meanwhile her opponent was talking about our issues to our voters.