clock menu more-arrow no yes

Trump exposed the limits of political consulting. But the industry will continue to thrive.

Trump (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s victory was a revolt against the political establishment, including the legions of consultants who manage American elections. Trump was an unconventional candidate who ran an unconventional campaign. He spent less money than his rival, Hilary Clinton, he ran fewer ads, and he won without the kind of extensive field operation that fueled Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. In the ultimate rejection of political expertise, Trump defied virtually every professional pollster and prognosticator who predicted a Clinton victory.

Trump’s win has produced a moment of introspection for the political consulting business. On the night of the election, Republican strategist Mike Murphy tweeted that “data died tonight.” Former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod predicted that members of his profession “are going to go through a lot of soul searching.” These comments by experienced operatives reveal how much Clinton’s loss has challenged the conventional wisdom as well as the status of a multibillion-dollar business. If Trump can secure the White House without an expensive ad war or a data-driven ground game, do candidates actually need political consultants?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Professionally run campaigns are now the norm, making it hard to say how much political consultants matter to the outcome of an election. Recent research on congressional races suggests that consultants tend to work for the same incumbents year in and year out, especially those in safe seats. In other words, consultants look for clients who can pay and are likely to win. This same research suggests that because consultants are hired by candidates who already enjoy competitive advantages like incumbency and money (both scare off quality challengers), it is difficult to assess the value of consultants or the services they provide.

As others have pointed out, the 2016 election presented a unique opportunity to compare the effects of different campaign strategies, including the worth of professional advice. Whereas Clinton relied on top-shelf Democratic firms such as GMMB and Bully Pulpit Interactive that had been central to Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, Trump turned to relative unknowns such as Giles-Parscale, a Texas-based digital marketing firm with no prior campaign experience. Despite their advantage in expertise, postmortems of 2016 suggest that Clinton’s team misallocated resources in the closing days of the race. Thinking their lead was safe, the Clinton campaign shifted attention away from the Midwest battleground states that proved so decisive.

Assessments like this are easy after the fact. Now we know the Clinton campaign made strategic decisions based on data that proved to be wrong. But it’s a mistake to chalk this up to polling failure and simply move on. The problems run deeper, and they reveal the limits of professionally managed campaigns.

Politics is uncertain. Despite all the money consultants spend on sophisticated analysis, their attempt to paint a picture of the public remains stubbornly incomplete. The ability to anticipate the vote has improved over time, but an element of our inner selves remains just out of view until Election Day. It is this elusiveness that makes uncertainty a durable feature of democratic politics, even as it drives further efforts to develop new tools of prediction and persuasion.

The 2016 election also reminds us that politics is a shared experience. Voting is a solitary act, but campaigns are collective efforts. This is the feeling we get at a political rally or mass meeting: that one is part of something bigger, a force that is greater than the sum of its parts. In 2008, stadiums erupted with chants of “yes, we can.” In 2016, the tone was decidedly darker as angry crowds joined in calls to “lock her up.” Because consultants tend to focus on individual survey responses and databases built from troves of personal information, they can miss the emotional, even visceral experience of mass politics.

Trump’s victory exposed these limitations of political consulting, but the business of politics will continue to thrive.

The reason is simple: candidates want to win. Ambition and fear fuel a relentless drive to secure and hold office. This benefits the campaign industry in two ways. First, even a relatively safe incumbent will hire consultants as a hedge against an uncertain future. With individual officeholders responsible for their own political fates, consultants help candidates cope with an electoral landscape they cannot fully control.

Second, politicians must engage in a constant search for money. This is a byproduct of a campaign finance system that allows unlimited contributions and spending. As I have argued elsewhere, the campaign industry is an integral part of this system. Not only do consultants help raise money through direct mail or internet solicitations but consultants spend money in ways that help campaigns comply with federal rules while signaling to donors the legitimacy of the candidate. Even if the effects of advertising are unclear, the risk of being outspent by one’s rival can enhance the urgency of the campaign’s fundraising appeal.

Trump proved it is possible to win the White House without a big advertising budget or an extensive ground game. Of course, few candidates have the name recognition of Trump; even fewer elicit the kind of feverish mass following we witnessed in the campaign. In less extraordinary circumstances, advertising can have measurable effects on opinion and data analytics can help get out the vote.

But the multibillion-dollar business of politics continues to thrive for reasons other than the services it provides. So long as politicians must secure vast sums to insure their electoral survival, political consultants will play a critical role in raising and spending money in campaigns. The biggest threat to the elections industry is not the rise of a candidate who can win without consultants. It is a political reform movement dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics.

Adam Sheingate is a professor and chair of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy. He is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism and the author of The Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State: Institutions and Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan as well as journal articles and book chapters on American political development, historical institutionalism, and comparative public policy.