Reform Law Divides Consultants

AU Survey Underscores Split Among Political Strategists

Posted March 12, 2003 at 6:24pm

The political consulting community is decidedly split over the impact of the new campaign finance law, according to a recent survey of more than 200 political consultants by American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

One-third of political strategists surveyed said the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act will expand the role of the political parties at the state level, about the same percentage who think the law will shrink the role of parties at the national level.

However, 43 percent of strategists predicted things will stay the same for state party organizations, and 36 percent believe BCRA won’t have a noticeable impact on the role of the parties at the national level.

The findings are part of a continuing study the center has conducted for the past several years under a Pew Charitable Trust grant. The last such survey was in 1999.

The research examines the roles of political parties and consultants in the electoral process, consultants’ perception of candidates and campaigns and ethics in the industry. The newest survey also measures consultants’ attitudes toward the new campaign finance law.

“They’re against it, most of them. Most of them think it’s going to hurt the parties nationally,” said James Thurber, the center director who oversees the study.

Thurber noted that some consultants who specialize in certain areas appear to have different reactions to the new regulatory scheme.

“Media people are worried … and direct-mail people like what they’re seeing,” Thurber said.

While the law’s soft-money ban and electioneering communications provisions are bound to place strict constraints on what media consultants do, direct-mail strategists will still have most of the freedom they have enjoyed in the past and many predict that money will flow to them.

Money Drying Up?

Exactly where all the campaign-related cash will go, however, is subject to debate.

In blind quotes included in the survey, some consultants argued that state parties will be “one of the few legal places to move money” and predicted that “more money will flow to state parties that can’t be spent on the national level.”

But others suggested that state parties would also suffer under the law as they find their source of funds severely restricted.

“The source of money is going to be dried up,” said one consultant. “Political parties operate more effectively with more money — with the political reform laws drying up the money, the political parties will be less effective.”

A number of consultants also stated that certain services traditionally offered by the parties — including campaign funding and advertisement coordination — will suffer under the law.

But about a third of consultants — 33 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats — do not think the ban on soft money will ultimately have any effect on the 2004 elections because parties will find loopholes to get around the law.

Significant portions of Democrats and Republicans also believe the soft-money ban will lead to more independent expenditures and new methods of raising hard money.

While 16 percent of consultants believe the new restrictions on issue advertising under the electioneering communications portion of the law will increase the quality of campaigns and cut down on negative campaigning, 20 percent predicted “no effect.”

Sept. 11 Matters

Some 15 percent believe the ban will not be upheld by the Supreme Court, which will consider the constitutionality of the law after a preliminary ruling is handed down by a U.S. District Court panel any day now.

The survey also examined consultants’ views on the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, on campaigns and consultants’ feelings about themselves.

“Two in five consultants believe the tone of the 2002 election cycle changed for the better in light of the events of Sept. 11,” the report stated. Three in 10 political consultants noted an increased emphasis on foreign policy issues, and one in four cited an increased focus on patriotism or less negative campaigning.

Overall, consultants feel that their influence has increased the most at the local and state levels, and many said hired guns have largely taken the place of the national parties during campaigns, by providing such services as media, strategy, direct mailing and polling.

At the same time, consultants also said the role of parties at the state and national levels seems to be increasing — a turnaround from what the same group of consultants said in 1999, when they described the role of parties as decreasing.

There were marked differences in how Republican and Democratic strategists assessed their respective party organizations overall.

While Republicans tended to give high ratings to their national party organizations and House and Senate candidates, Democratic consultants seemed less satisfied.

Sixty-one percent of GOP consultants said their national party groups were “excellent/good” and 58 percent rated House and Senate candidates as “excellent/good.”

But only 27 percent of Democratic consultants rated their party organizations as “excellent/good.” Just 29 percent of Democratic consultants considered the caliber of candidates to be “excellent/good.”

Thirty-nine percent of Democratic consultants consider the national party organization “average” and 29 percent rated it as “poor/very poor.”

Fifty-three percent of Democratic-hired guns rated candidates as “average,” and 16 percent said House and Senate candidates running for office are “poor/very poor.”

Thurber said he believes those attitudes reflect the difference in the parties’ recruiting strategies.

“I think in this particular case, the Republicans got more involved in recruiting quality candidates,” Thurber said, noting that in the Democratic Party there tends to be “a lot more self-recruitment.”

“I think if you lose, of course, as a consultant, you frequently blame the crop of candidates you’re working for rather than other factors,” he said.

Political consultants gave higher marks to their own performance, however, rating themselves highest among professionals involved in elections and politics and rating journalists among the poorest.

Noting that the ultimate goal of the research is improving campaign conduct, Thurber said he is encouraged by other findings of his latest research.

In the area of ethics, Thurber noted “slight improvements” since 1999.

For instance, 68 percent of consultants report that unethical practices occur in the political consulting industry, compared with 73 percent who thought so in 1999.

The biggest problem, 28 percent of all consultants surveyed said, is false representation of facts or misinformation to the public.

An additional 19 percent pointed to negative campaigning as an ethical problem, down from 33 percent in 1999, and only 14 percent said conflicts of interest were a problem in the consulting industry, compared with 25 percent in 1999.

The percentage of consultants concerned about questionable or illegal campaign fundraising practices dropped from 13 percent in 1999 to 8 percent in 2002.

Thurber said a parallel survey of voters following the 2002 elections last fall revealed that they too thought it was a “cleaner campaign.”

“It’s not a revolution,” he said, “but it’s going in the right direction.”