Most Republican political operatives these days argue that President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda is a flop. But over at the GOP consulting firm the Black Rock Group, where business is booming thanks to rising campaign spending, partner Brian Jones admits that political consultants are having no trouble finding work.
“This is one area where President Obama’s policies do seem to be creating jobs,” quipped Jones, his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Jones belongs to a political and media industry that is flourishing, even as the rest of the nation grapples with stagnant job growth. Thanks in part to Obama, who has set out to spend as much as $1 billion in the next election, and to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that has rolled back restrictions on political spending by unions and corporations, political professionals are enjoying unusual prosperity.
“Citizens United has definitely changed the landscape,” said Dale Emmons, a Kentucky political consultant who heads the American Association of Political Consultants, referring to the high court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. “And it’s a little bit like the wild, wild West.”
By paving the way for a new type of campaign committee know as a super PAC, that ruling has in effect handed political consultants a vast new client pool. Such political action committees may raise and spend unlimited corporate and union money as long as they operate at arm’s length from candidates. More than 100 super PACs are up and running, and in 2010 they helped drive campaign costs to close to $4 billion.
By some estimates, total spending in 2012 could hit anywhere from $5 billion to $7 billion. That will generate a lot of work for the political pros who create and place ads, conduct polls, craft campaign messages, produce and distribute direct mail, and set up robocalls. It also will provide a much-needed boost to the media industry, particularly the TV and radio stations that run the bulk of campaign ads.
“It’s a great thing for a [consulting] industry that has already grown and has been growing over the past couple of cycles,” said Shane D’Aprile, editor at Campaigns & Elections magazine. “From the moment of the Citizens United ruling, the vast majority of consultants saw a business boom beyond what they could imagine. And so far, it’s playing out that way.”
Some of the biggest beneficiaries have been GOP-allied firms, partly because of a spending surge by independent Republican groups, which were quick to take advantage of the post-Citizens United rules. American Crossroads, the brainchild of GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, plans to spend $120 million in the 2012 elections.
To some political consultants, such super PACs are turning into a headache-free alternative to working for multiple candidates or for one of the national party committees, which face stricter fundraising rules.
“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.