‘Top Gun’ Comes to Politics

Posted May 20, 2005 at 6:40pm

In October 1980, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent several million dollars running a national generic party ad showing a Lincoln Town Car running out of gas, as a Tip O’Neill lookalike was dazed and confused about the direction the country was headed in. The message was designed to be a national message linking Congressional Democrats with the incompetent leadership of the Carter administration.

In the 2004 elections, the NRCC spent $46.5 million running television ads. But not a single ad featured a generic policy message. Instead, the ads were issue advocacy relating to specific candidates.

The use of soft money in political advertising (thank you, Bill Clinton), though now banned, has opened the door to significantly more power and influence for political parties. The Colorado decision that allows independent expenditures by political parties has significantly increased employment opportunities for consultants, because now there is a team of consultants who work for candidates, as well as a separate team who work for the party organizations. (Don’t worry, lawyers make out fine in this arrangement — they review everything to ensure that it is legal.)

So, in 1980, the NRCC could spend roughly $32,000 in coordinated expenditures on a campaign, whereas now the figure is $72,000 plus issue advocacy expenditures. It is both stunning — and a credit to the party organizations — just how quickly they were able to adapt to a world with no soft money. It’s not the increase in coordinated expenditures that has given the parties more money, but the ability to do issue advocacy.

And campaigns overall are raising significantly more money. In 1990, 29 challengers raised more than $400,000. By 2000 the number of challengers raising $400,000 was up to 74. In open seats, the average spent in 1990 was $450,000, while open-seat spending jumped to nearly $1 million by the 2000 election.

Given the increased costs of everything — especially television advertising — campaigns must raise more. But more money does provide campaigns with more flexibility on campaign spending. In light of the fact that they are less effective now than even just 10 years ago, it’s ironic that TV ads cost significantly more to air.

For the foreseeable future, broadcast TV is still the best way to move numbers. Once upon a time, 500 gross rating points was a good number to ensure penetration for an ad, and a 1,000 GRP per week buy was a strong close. Now campaigns need 1,000-1,200 GRPs to make a dent in public consciousness, and a major Senate race will run 2,500 GRPs a week for the last two weeks. And that’s not even including the issue advocacy ads being run on behalf of the campaign. If you wanted to get rich from politics, you should have bought a TV station in South Dakota in 2001.

The speed of campaigns has also shifted in a higher gear compared to previous decades. Everything is done faster, quicker, stronger. In the 1980s, opposition research was done at the public library, sifting through microfilm for hours on end, searching for nuggets about a candidate’s record (opposition guys were huge fun at parties!). Now, much of that crucial work is done via the Internet. Survey questionnaires that had to be approved a day before fielding can now be changed up to the moment before interviewing begins. The media news cycle is shorter — meaning that campaigns must be immediately aggressive in responding to charges by an opponent.

Part of the “Top Gun”-esque need for speed is driven by the Internet, but part is driven by the maverick “war room” approach, popularized by the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. It existed prior to that campaign, but that race accelerated the approach.

The media are also now much more focused on the strategies and tactics of a campaign, rather than the candidates. In the old days (after electricity was invented, but before the Internet), media polling in a campaign only happened in major statewide races, if at all. Now, it seems like every weekly community newspaper runs polls for any race above the level of county coroner. This affects campaign strategy, because either the media polls are flawed (but opinion leaders/donors believe them), or they are right (and opinion leaders/donors now know the state of the campaign). Campaigns now have to time certain strategic decisions with one eye on those public polls and the perceptions that they drive.

Another major change in the consultant business has been the downgrading of the importance of general political consultants. In the 1970s and 1980s, the general consultants ruled supreme. While there are still good practitioners of the craft, media consultants and pollsters drive the strategy and message role, while phone vendors, interest groups and the parties fill in the grass-roots gap. Experienced managers, such as Dick Wadhams in now-South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s (R) campaign, often act as a combination of general consultant and daily manager.

A change that all consultants love is that public policy is not just for lobbyists anymore. Many associations and interest groups now have a public campaign to help drive their legislative agenda. Public policy campaigns mean polling, advertising, activating the grass roots and other components of a political campaign. And interest groups are turning into political pros to handle the outsider game — while at the same time still relying on lobbyists for the inside game. In a two-year election cycle, roughly half of our business is public-policy based, while the other half is campaign oriented.

Finally, candidates were once loath to admit that they had adman and pollsters. Now, many campaigns trumpet their consultant team as proof of viability. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic nomination fight, there was even widespread talk of the “Shrum primary” battled based on who would sign media guru Robert Shrum. And within those parentheses lies the one constant in this business of political consultants regardless of the passage of time — we’re not selling soap. There are winners and losers on Election Day, which is why the pressure and intensity is unmatched in nearly all other businesses besides professional sports.

Glen Bolger and Bill McInturff are partners in Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm with offices in Alexandria, Va., Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Denver.