Money, Consultants Play Outsized Role in Campaigns

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

In 1774, John Adams was approached by the leaders of Boston and asked if he would serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Adams did not seek the office and in fact struggled with accepting it – doing so was an act of treason to a certain point of view.

But, as we all know, he did accept that office. But that isn’t the point of the story for our purposes; the key is how he came to be chosen. You see John Adams was part of a class of people at the founding who served and were chosen to serve because of merit.

And while the south had its quasi aristocracy and there are counter examples a plenty, men like Adams, who would never have gotten the opportunity to lead under the old regime, were selected for merit – and that distinction made all the difference.

There was a brief time when this was true in America, a time when you stood for election – running was viewed as a base grab for power and a certain disqualification for the office you sought. But, as we all know, the game changed.

Even as running became the fashion there was still, for a time, an element of a this "merit selection;" candidates generally needed to distinguish themselves in some fashion prior to running, either through martial virtues or a steady climb up the political ladder with success at every rung.

Those requirements are no longer a necessity or even that important. The current landscape is largely dominated by one feature: money. You either need to be able to raise it or have it.

And, because of the this fact, campaign consultants – who are paid with that same money – are now the first people "recruiting" candidates, and their evaluation of a candidate’s viability turns on one factor more than any other. You guessed it: money. I should know – after all, it was my perceived fund raising advantages that led to my recruitment in 2004.

You see, campaign consultants are like jockeys – they need a horse to ride. The more money that horse has, the better the odds for success (or, at minimum, the better the odds for the consultants to get paid — well).

It is still true that most of the genuinely competitive seats will attract top tier candidates with a proven track record for both political accomplishment and fundraising. But in many, many cases seats that are at best marginally competitive attract few quality candidates — in some cases none at all. And that leaves open voids.

Enter the consultant class, who then go looking for a horse in lost races to generate fees. They sell the vague possibility of victory the same way the lottery says "you have to play to win"– its not a lie, but its about as likely. And they always seem to gravitate to the same type of candidate – the kind that can self-finance. You know, "until we get traction and can raise some money."

Except raising money for lost races never materializes. I was lucky; the White House wanted to work my district in the hopes of carrying Pennsylvania, so I was able to raise a couple bucks in 2004. But for most of these races, ones where the incumbent is far too popular for there to be a realistic chance at a win and no outside reason for the party to support the race, the fundraising is from friends, family and – more often than not – ones’ own pocket.

That is why the consultants come looking for deep pockets; it’s the best way to ensure that the important bills – theirs – are paid. And while many of these deep pocketed candidates have merit, that is not the reason consultants are beating a path to their door; it’s all about the ability to pay.

Consider: in 2007 I was asked to consider running for Auditor General by a well-known consultant who made the (weak) case that it wasn’t anti-Bush out there, it was anti-Incumbent and that Jack Wagner was vulnerable. Never mind that I thought Jack was one of the better Auditors General we have had, the fact is I had no qualifications for the job, had no interest in the job, and had no chance of actually winning – but that didn’t matter to my would-be consultant.

All that mattered was that I was perceived to have the "ability to pay" the consultant fees, both through personal means and an assumed wide fundraising net. In my case, given that I pooh poohed the prospects of winning in about 8 seconds, they switched to the appeal to ambition, saying things like "it will boost your name id state wide for future runs" and "it gets you on the short list for Lt. Governor or to challenge Casey." You know, so that you can hire more consultants.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am not saying I lack ability or ambition. But the fact is in 2007 there were a couple hundred people better suited for a run at Auditor General than I, except for money factor. Just like there were better candidates than Lynn Swann – who I liked – in 2006 or John Kerry in 2004. The rivals to those nominees all lost, and we know why: money matters. Heck, even Obama loses the Democratic nomination in 2008 but for the money needed to compete on Super Tuesday.

Consultants know this better than anyone. Once upon a time the "best" consultants went to the best candidates and you could gauge a campaign that way; now, by and large, the "best" consultants go to the guy with the deepest pockets and the biggest war chest. Wealth, rather than pure merit, has become the paramount factor in looking for candidates.

Its true everywhere, in both parties, and it is truly a shame – our democracy deserves better.

I’m Scott Paterno, and that is the uncomfortable truth.