Candidates and Consultants: Separating Fools from their Money

super-pacNew Orleans    Donald Trump makes one point that is both compelling and increasingly incontestable, arguing essentially that political campaign consultants, media and mail pros, and even pollsters are rip-off artists. Typically Trump, it’s too broad based a generalization, but it is one that has not a kernel, but a ton of truth attached. An article by Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s Magazine pretty much makes the same case by allowing some of the same consultants to indict themselves and their industry out of their own mouths, mostly describing the art and science of politics as the process not so much of winning votes as separating fools from their money.

Take Mark McKinnon, a Texas political purveyor with a long list of campaigns under his belt including running media for George Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. Here’s his formula for how you can get rich in politics, win or lose, as long as your hand is in the till:

“You can do it [set up a super PAC] in five minutes with three people. You set it up and you have a treasurer and a whatever. That’s my two buddies and me. Then we go to a couple of [the candidate’s] wealthy friends and say, ‘Hey do you want to elect your friend? Well, we’ve got a super PAC here. You can give five, ten, fifteen, twenty million dollars, and really have an impact on this race.’ The donor doesn’t know anything about what we do or how we do it. We’re going to go full commission and pay ourselves really well, because nobody’s negotiating with us. For all the donor knows, fifteen percent is the standard deal, because that’s what he’s being told. This is sort of like saying, ‘Okay, you guys. The bank is open, there’s no cameras. There’s no security. Take as much as you need.’”

He’s not alone. In fact he claims he didn’t take the 15% from Bush, so he might just be more candid than most of this class. Cockburn gave another example of Vincent Harris, “digital strategist for the Rand Paul campaign, saying, ‘Sometimes 60 percent, 70 percent, 100 percent of your donation is going into the pocket of some consultant.” Cockburn also details how Dr. Ben Carson got totally skimmed when he raised his first $64 million with $57 million spent mostly on the fundraising apparatus itself. In a footnote, Cockburn details about $10 million scammed from Carson on interlocking outfits, husband-and-wife deals, and the like as they divided the spoils from his campaign.

And, as we have often discussed, Professor Donald Green and his colleagues have established for years that all of this television and direct mail, largely just doesn’t’ work, which means these campaigns are often making consultants rich while losing.

Michael Kieschnick, the former head of CREDO, the social enterprise telephone service formerly known as Working Assets, and a longtime friend and comrade in these wars sums it up for Harper’s when asked if “big money could ever be defeated,” saying,

“Yes, but only because most of the One Percent – not all! – waste most of their money in politics on expensive but bad advertising and even more expensive consultants. Since the American people agree with us on most of the issues, it is an ongoing struggle between voter suppression, misinformation, and voter turnout. If we simply shifted half of the billions spent on television into ongoing year-round, person-to-person engagement with voters, progressive candidates would dominate. But year after year, we raise more money and waste it.”

Kieschnick is singing our song, and in fact Professor Green studied ACORN’s registration and GOTV operation and used the study to make his case, so all I can really add to Michael’s argument is: Amen!