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The Puppet Masters: Political Consultants

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” the famous quote from Kaiser Sose could, (tongue firmly in cheek), be applied to the role of the political consultant.

Joseph John Napolitan was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 6, 1929. He would go on to become one of the most influential and recognized political consultants of his generation. Self-coining the phrase ‘political consultant’, Napolitan remains on a pedestal ever since.

Defining the role of a political consultant can be a difficult and where their duties begin and end can vary hugely. Napolitan served as a consultant for John.F.Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign and Lyndon.B. Johnson in 1964. A master of media advertising and polling, he will be best remembered for helping long shot Milton J. Shapp secure the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania against Robert P. Casey Sr., a state Senator favored by party establishment in ‘66. Napolitan used weekly polls to perfect his candidate's campaign message which was unheard of at the time. His innovation and independence from party hierarchy made him an exemplar of a new kind of politics in the late 1960s. The New York Times described him in a 1968 profile as “that newest American phenomenon, the professional campaign manager.”

More than most professions, political consultants live on their successes rather than their qualifications. This is a role that demands real world experience. All of which is totally acceptable, until it isn’t. David Axelrod, a New York born consultant has a very impressive resume. He was the advisor behind Obama’s successful presidential campaign in ‘08 and again in ‘12, and is reported to have been the mastermind behind the “Yes we can” slogan. As you can imagine, he found himself in high demand with prospective candidates very quickly and his £300,000 fee reflected this. But you are only as good as your last campaign and so it was with Axelrod.

His announcement as consultant to the UK’s Labour party in April 2014 was seen as rather impressive coup by Ed Miliband, but 12 months on and Labour MP’s were questioning if he was worth the big bucks. Labour's implosion in the General Election in 2015 has severely dented his once shining, reputation. His support for Labour over his Twitter account was non-existent and his US residence only represented the physical distance between consultant and Party. In this instance, it was Axelrod’s celebrity which had travelled across the Atlantic but not his political prowess.

Lessons From The Past

In 1988, Napolitan, the original consultant, wrote a paper that is still relevant today:100 things I have learned in 30 years as a political consultant. The paper goes through important lessons that each political consultant or advisor needs to be aware of:

Strategy is the single most important factor in a political campaign

This was the most important lesson Napolitan learned. “The right strategy can survive a mediocre campaign, but even a brilliant campaign is likely to fail if the strategy is wrong. The strategy must be adapted to fit the campaign; you can’t adapt the campaign to fit the strategy. Also this small but essential point: if you can’t write it down, you don’t have a strategy.”

Polls are essential but don’t be fooled by them

“The only practical reason to take a political poll is to obtain information that will help you win the election. If the poll won’t do that, you are better off spending your money on something else. Perhaps the least important information in a political poll is who is ahead at any given moment. Polls are not infallible, especially in primaries, or when they are taken before the campaign actually begins. I won’t run a campaign without adequate polling — but neither will I place total dependence on the polls. Nor will I make my polls public unless there is an unusual and extremely good reason for doing so”.

Don’t be afraid to bring in the real experts

“The sense of insecurity that exists among campaign managers and advisers should never be underestimated. It broke my heart in the 1984 presidential election to see all the talent on the sidelines not being used by the Democratic candidate – when he clearly needed all the help he could get. And this wasn’t the first time. If you have access to the skills of a Tony Schwartz of a Bob Squier or a David Garth and you don’t use them, you are making a mistake. If you win the election, everyone can be a hero. And if you lose, there is no glory for anyone. Use the best you can get and don’t worry about whose feelings may be hurt”.

Timing is critical

“Timing is a critical part of overall strategy. Using an issue too early – or too late – can nullify its impact. Each situation is different. For a candidate who is not well known, an early media campaign can be essential. For a well-known candidate, early media may be wasteful. If your opponent makes an easily refutable charge, sometimes it is better to let him repeat it several times so that he will look silly when you counterattack. But sometimes it is essential to answer the charge immediately. It’s hard to teach timing. Much of it is instinctive. And in this era of computerized games, it’s nice to know that human judgment still plays a critical role in the campaign”.

A Modern Outlook: Joel Mendelson

Someone who is familiar with this relentless grind is political consultant Joel Mendelson,a man who has nearly a decade of experience in the role. Having fallen into politics in college, Mendelson urges anyone with an interest in the political sphere to work hard and build connections. Speaking about the most overlooked issues in a campaign he explains “the need for adequate funding and a good old fashioned field game” are sometimes placed on the back burner in modern times. “State and local campaigns look at presidential races and assume they can run the entire campaign through the web, and it's just not true. Even presidential candidates knock on doors and make phone calls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates need to raise more than they think they need and knock on doors and make phone calls every single day”.

Just like Napolitan before him, Mendelson knows that having a well rounded campaign strategy is key, “You need to understand the various aspects of what makes a campaign work: fundraising, field, messaging, and strategy and tactical development. Data and analytics will continue to change elections. Good, well-funded campaigns should invest heavily in data and analytics. Get the data you need on every voter who will vote for you, which helps your targeting immensely. Knowing exactly who to talk to, where they are, and how often you need to talk to them cuts down on talking to non-voters, those who vote for the opposition, and the folks who are no longer registered in your district/state. Additionally, I expect the use of social media to evolve. We have no idea what that might look like in 5 years, but every candidate will have a presence on social".

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