No Shortage of Political Work Overseas

Consultants Export Campaign Expertise

Posted April 3, 2009 at 5:32pm

For veteran political consultants like Tony Marsh, there is no such thing as an “off year.—

His firm, Marsh Copsey + Associates Inc., raked in more than $1 million during the 2007-08 election cycle, but the Republican media and message guru is hardly taking it easy six months into the new cycle.

He will be logging plenty of frequent-flier miles in the coming months, as he has lined up presumably lucrative political consulting gigs in far-flung destinations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

And he’s hardly alone.

With the paint on last November’s elections barely dry, a bipartisan group of prominent pollsters, media advisers and other specialists already are readying their steamer trunks of political tricks for consulting gigs on nearly every continent.

Like Hollywood, it’s a quintessential American export.

“We spend more on campaigns than in other countries, and we have more elections than other countries,— said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster whose firm has done political consulting in dozens of countries, including Israel, Poland, Germany, Bolivia, Mexico and the Republic of Georgia. “As a result, we have companies and professions that don’t exist in other countries.—

Jeremy Rosner, another principal at Capitol Hill-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, heads up the firm’s international practice, which has done consulting work for former heads of state such as South African President Nelson Mandela and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Best known as President Bill Clinton’s pollster, Greenberg and his firm now have their sights set on upcoming European parliamentary elections. Rosner said his shop recently has done political work in Ireland and Georgia, where U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili sparred with Moscow last summer.

Rosner and Greenberg agree that although the political battlefields may be quite different in other countries, the polling methods are essentially the same — although the surveys might not be conducted over the telephone.

“In most of these countries you have to do face-to-face rather than telephone interviewing, which we’re beginning to think is a good thing with the way telephone interviewing is going in the U.S.,— Rosner said.

“We go in not as expert people about the country — we often don’t speak the language or don’t speak it as well as the people who live there,— he added. “We try to bring to bear some of the techniques we’ve learned along the way.—

Of all the countries where he’s hung his shingle, Rosner said Israel is “always a special pleasure and a special agony.— The country has three distinct and complex electorates — Jews, Arabs and Jewish Eastern European émigrés — and political participation is a national pastime.

“It’s probably the most singularly focused electorate. Every day, in every focus group, everybody has watched all the political ads and all the political news. It’s just a political junkie nation, which on one hand is wonderful and on the other hand it requires you to be on top of every word in three languages,— he said. “It’s an excruciating — and at the same time delightfully intense — political environment.—

But not everything translates when Rosner, Greenberg or other political consultants plant their stakes in the far reaches of the globe. For example, the accepted convention of testing favorability by using a metaphorical thermometer can get you in hot water in many places.

“Talking about warm’ things in Latin America is a big danger,— Rosner said. “You’ve got to sweat all of those details when we go through translations, so we go through translation and back translation and get outside translators to check the translations.—

Another major difference consultants encounter when dispatched oversees is how candidates and parties communicate their messages to voters, if they have a message at all.

The tried and true 30-second television ad isn’t possible, practical or even legal in some countries, so consultants must adapt to more locally accepted message delivery systems like, for example, text messaging in Eastern Europe.

“Cell phones are huge pretty much everywhere else in the world,— said Marsh, the Republican consultant. “I’m just looking at a voter file in Romania where out of 20 million or so people, there’s 22 million cell phone [numbers] and 40,000 land lines.—

Greenberg said his firm always works with a local partner in other countries and extensively vets overseas candidates and parties before signing them on.

He also declined to indicate exactly how lucrative overseas consulting work can be.

“The highest paying — if you’re in this for the money — don’t correlate with literacy,— he said. “If you want to make a lot of money, don’t go to Sweden and Israel.—

International consulting work also can bring together normally antagonistic political hands, said Marsh, who also is preparing for upcoming European parliamentary elections, as well as contests in Romania and war-torn Iraq, which he said “in some ways has been the most satisfying.—

“I find that Democrats and Republicans agree more with one another when they’re overseas than they do when they’re here,— he said.