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