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Are campaign consultants, and their techniques, of any use?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Political communication consultants (in their modern incarnation, an American invention) have become global celebrities. Political leaders in particular listen to the major ones with rapt attention, and their books and diaries tumble unto bookshelves with regularity. An example is Dispatches from the War Room: in the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders by Stanley B. Greenberg. In the memoir, Greenberg, one of the most notable pollsters and campaign consultants of his generation, chronicles the campaigns he ran with Bill Clinton of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Barak of Israel, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia, and many more. What is more, major documentaries and movies are being made about what these political communication consultants do. The most recent is Our Brand is Crisis (2015), starring Sandra Bullock and Bob Thornton. 

Not only are these consultants getting to work all over the world and earn container- loads of cash, their methods are spreading. And the methods are also influencing what other campaigns do, including efforts by social movements and civil society organizations worldwide. The challenge is more or less the same: how do you get citizens to make a move (vote, protest against injustices, support a good cause/reform efforts etc.)?

Nonetheless, one question is being asked with ever greater force and insistence: Do the methods of these political communication consultants really work? In the October 2016 edition of The Atlantic, for instance, there is a fascinating report by Molly Ball: “ ‘There’s Nothing Better Than a Scared, Rich Candidate’: How political consulting works -- or doesn’t. It is an informative piece, an attempt to separate what is useful about political consulting from the hype. After reading it, though, the overall impression is negative. Some of the criticisms directed by disappointed clients and skeptical researchers (especially political scientists) at what these consultants do are as follows:

  • Around the world instances are piling up where populist candidates using crude and unorthodox methods are beating campaigns run by political communication consultants.
  • These consultants and their firms are terrifically expensive, and it is not clear that they provide value for the money.
  • When these consultants fail to produce a result they always have an easy explanation: “Oh, the ‘fundamentals’ were against us! The campaign was always a long shot! It could have been worse!”
  • The most important criticism is this: many political scientists insist that research shows that campaigns work only at the margins. They don’t matter that much. For instance, one of my favorite political scientists, Jonathan Bernstein, blogs for Bloomberg View. On September 12, 2016, in a blog post titled “Most voters already know what they need to know” he wrote:
The main point here is that most people don’t base their votes on information they get about candidates and their policies. Mostly, we are voting for a candidate’s party. Or, more broadly, most of us vote in sync with those groups we identify with politically. The candidate’s campaign -- hundreds of millions of dollars of it -- is for the most part dedicated to pushing all of us to where we were likely go anyway, based on our party and group identification. Nothing is wrong with that. If my ideology or profession or ethnicity or income bracket is important to me when it comes to politics, and if I can correctly match which candidate these groups are voting for, then I’m a sufficiently informed voter.” 

The implication: campaigns don’t matter that much; voters already have rough but effective ways of deciding who to support. If you want to pursue this in detail please see: The Gamble by Lynn Vavreck and John Sides.

Now, what are the things that campaigns do well? According to the experts interviewed by Molly Ball for the piece in The Atlantic, two claims are supported by research:
  • Campaigns can create name recognition for a hitherto obscure candidate for office in any country. By implication, campaigns can draw attention to issues and causes that nobody cares about or not enough people care about.
  • Field organizing, mobilizing voters door-to-door, street by street, engaging them, turning them out to vote… these activities appear to help. By implication, wherever you are in the world, this so-called “ground game” can help build practical support for issues and causes too. The hard grind of boots pounding pavements and dirt roads produces results.
To sum up, I share the skepticism of the political scientists about the often advertised prowess of political communication consultants. The good ones obviously make a contribution, especially now that they are combining Big Data with the insights of social psychologists. The point is: the good ones in this area of communication as in others will display a large measure of humility. Why? For the following reason. Fully socialized adults are not easy to persuade about anything…if they have made up their minds. And the beliefs and value commitments that drive opinion and behavior are often deeply interred and unshakeable. Add unpredictable factors like national mood, demographics, candidate/spokesperson charisma and so on and it is stupid to make grand claims about what a particular campaign consultant can do for a candidate in an election…or an issue or a cause. Humility is merited by the facts.

Unfortunately, as George Bernard Shaw once said: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity”.


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