“For some operatives, the idea of working for a third-party group or a super PAC is particularly attractive because you’re talking about message and ad dollars,” Jones said.
Consultants are still finding plenty of work with candidates and parties, which are also poised to spend record sums in 2012. And Democratic consultants will get a big share of the pie. Obama’s campaign is on track to be the biggest single spender in next year’s elections. Among the top-grossing firms in the industry is the Democratic political consulting and advertising shop of CMMB, which, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis, collected at least $112 million from federal campaign ad buys last year.
Political consultants tend to downplay their good fortune, arguing that broadcasters are the ones making the real profits. But campaign ads will disproportionately help TV stations in battleground states, said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters. And broadcasters must still offer candidates discounted ad rates, he noted, cutting into profits: “Sometimes it’s almost a wash.”
But this political money also trickles through the economy. Each new super PAC that opens its doors operates like a small business — hiring staff, paying utility bills, couriers and postage fees, spending money on planes, cabs and trains as well as office equipment and rent. More often than not, such PACs also run lucrative nonprofit affiliates that advertise heavily around policy issues, creating still more work for political consultants.
Emmons likens it to a basketball game that starts out with “two teams on the floor,” when “all of a sudden, the people in the stands want to play, too.”
Over at American Crossroads, public records show hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures showered this year on a long list of firms doing advocacy, research, donor development, legal fees, website production, and online and broadcast advertising. Priorities USA Action, the new Democratic super PAC backing Obama, shows similar expenditures.
“This is one field that has thrived during the recession,” said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Political consultants are doing great.”
Of course, this kind of job growth might not mean much to voters in Ohio or Michigan, and it is not a success story that the president is likely to mention.