A political consultant is a type of management consultant who focuses on the campaigns of political figures. He or she can be looked at as a sort of advertising executive, but instead of selling a tangible product or service, they are selling the idea of a person as a candidate. Although these consultants exist throughout the world, in the United States specifically, a fairly massive industry has built up around political consulting.
Political consulting is not a new thing in the American political landscape. Early political advisors, such as President McKinley’s close confidante Mark Hanna, acted in much the same capacity as modern consultants. In the 1930s the firm Campaigns, Inc. was formed by Whitaker and Baker, focusing exclusively on political campaigns in their marketing work. In the 1960s, with the advent of massive television campaigns, the work of the political consultant grew exponentially, and people like Joseph Napolitan began actively describing themselves with this phrase.
With the continued growth of media in political campaigns, and the increasingly important role that message management and spin plays in handling campaigns, political consulting is becoming an ever more and more integral part of campaigns. Nearly all political campaigns, from the most basic city council campaign to the Presidential campaigns, employ at least one political consultant, and larger campaigns may employ dozens. Although it is undeniable that the consultant is a necessary part of a modern campaign, many people level criticisms at the role especially as it becomes more visible to the public.
Traditionally, the political consultant was responsible primarily for simple marketing aspects of a campaign, such as ad buys and crafting the ads. In recent years, however, as campaigns have become more focused, he or she is likely to be actively involved in crafting the message of the campaign. Speeches will be run by him or her, and the candidate will likely be drilled on talking points to address any questions that may come up in non-scripted events. Bearing, set dressings, and even outfits may all be run by the consultant, who can evaluate how every small thing will impact a candidate’s perception in the public eye.
One of the largest criticisms aimed at political consulting is that more and more consultants see themselves as personal celebrities, and often put the needs of their clients second to their own needs. This has become especially true as 24-hour news networks have grown and find themselves needing political experts. A political consultant is the obvious choice to fill the role of commentator, so many consultants end up with jobs commenting on politics, which many charge impedes their ability to serve their candidates completely. This can also be seen in the proliferation of book deals for political consultants, where candidate secrets may be revealed in order to help bolster book sales.
Another major critique is that political consultants have a vested interest in a certain type of partisan politics, where they flourish. This encourages them to push campaigns run in a negative style, with a few set agendas. People argue that the dynamic discourages public participation, and critics label the system one of political insiders dictating policy for an entire party.