Nearly half of political consultants (48%) believe the campaign industry is headed in the right direction at the start of the 2020 cycle, but C&E’s inaugural State of the Campaign Industry Survey, conducted by PSB Research, found practitioners worried about a host of challenges that loom for campaign professionals this year and beyond.
Among the biggest concerns: hacking and foreign election interference tainting the 2020 campaign + the likelihood that digital strategists in the U.S. start using disinformation tactics more widely in domestic campaigns.
The C&E/PSB Research survey found a strong majority of consultants anticipate that one or both major party presidential campaigns will be hacked during next year’s general election, and 56% of political professionals said they believe it’s either very or somewhat likely that foreign interference could call into question the result of the 2020 election.
“We know that we’re in an ongoing cyberwar with the Russians and they’ve already shown a pretty sophisticated capability in hacking into our political process so it’s not surprising at all to me that political professionals think it’ll happen with a high probability,” said PSB pollster Jason Boxt, who led the survey team.
Results for the survey are based on online interviews with 408 professional political consultants conducted by PSB Research from Jan 10, 2019 to February 2, 2019. The survey has an estimated margin of error of +/- 4.85%.
A few areas of focus for the 2019 survey: digital warfare and disinformation, #MeToo and the campaign industry, business projections for 2020, ethical practices in the industry, and political predictions for next year.
Digital Interference and the 2020 Presidential Campaign
One area where political consultants are largely pessimistic heading into 2020: the prospect of further election interference and disinformation tactics from both foreign and domestic actors.
Consultants expressed great uncertainty about the cybersecurity readiness of political party committees and individual campaigns at the national level. The vast majority of consultants (87%) think it is likely that one or both major party presidential campaigns will be hacked during the 2020 general election.
For anyone following cybersecurity and campaigns, there’s reason for concern. The tactics of foreign hackers have gotten more sophisticated following the 2016 presidential election and despite a greater focus on the threat, attempts continued through the 2018 midterms.
While there now exists a wider awareness of the threat, and in the cases of some party organizations and individual campaigns there exists a more proactive approach, cybersecurity experts still warn that most of the industry isn’t taking the threat seriously enough. In many cases that starts with the practices of individual consultants who are essentially serving as weak links in the organizational chain.
Even starker, a majority of consultants (56%) think it is likely that foreign interference will call into question the result of the 2020 election. And a large majority (82%) think it is likely digital strategists working on domestic campaigns will become more comfortable using digital disinformation tactics against opponents.
Diversity and the #MeToo Movement in the Political Industry
The political campaign industry is struggling to come to terms with the #MeToo movement. Nearly half (46%) of female political consultants say they have been the victim of some form of sexual harassment in the industry. Overall, among both men and women, 59% say sexual harassment is at least somewhat common in the industry and 44% say they have witnessed or encountered it themselves.
Despite the numbers on sexual harassment in the industry, just 44% of overall respondents in the C&E/PSB survey agree the industry has a #MeToo problem and just 26% believe harassment is more common in political consulting than in other industries. The survey also found significant party ID and gender differences on this question.
More than half of women surveyed (54%) said the industry is a “hostile work environment for women”—a view held by only 30 percent of men. More importantly, 48% of female practitioners said that sexism or racism cost them a job “they were otherwise qualified for.”
When it comes to creating change, almost all consultants (89%) think their companies are doing enough to combat sexual harassment and roughly the same number (84%) said that their companies were doing enough to promote diversity.
Still, it’s clear from the numbers the industry has a long way to go when it comes to issues of race and gender. 48% of political professionals said they have “witnessed or encountered racism” in the campaign industry. And 33% of professionals agree that perceptions of the political industry prevent more minorities from entering the field.
“There are bad apples in every industry, but there’s a clear recognition within the political campaign space that it’s not as good a working environment for people of color and women. Men are less likely to see that than women,” said lead pollster Jason Boxt, who predicted this could change as more women and people of color take leadership positions at firms and campaigns.
“It would certainly be my expectation to see a real shift, not only in awareness but also in behavior in terms of how men interact with women in the professional political space,” he said.
A Mostly Bullish Business Outlook for the Industry
2018 was a good year for political firms. A full 95% of political consulting professionals say business is going at least “good” for their company, with 43% saying it is going “very well.”
Professionals at Republican firms were more likely to say things are going “very well” (49%) than those at Democratic firms (40%). And as a whole, 85% of professionals rated their firm performance as at least “good” in the 2018 cycle vs. 77% who said the same about the 2016 cycle.
In addition, over one-third of firms are planning on increasing their number of full-time employees in 2019.
The right track-wrong-track question revealed that respondents on the right feel business is better at the moment, while practitioners at smaller firms were less likely to feel confident the industry was headed in the right direction. Same for those working closely with candidates.
In fact, those involved in candidate recruitment and training are by far the most pessimistic about the industry. By a 47% to 42% margin, those professionals are more likely to believe the industry is off on the wrong track. These professionals were the only category out of 12 major categories of consultants to believe things were on the wrong track. Professionals working in polling, research, and direct mail are most likely to say things are headed in the right direction.
Ethics and the Campaign Industry
The C&E/PSB Research State of the Campaign Industry Survey found that political consultants have boundaries when it comes to certain campaign practices with large majorities of professionals labeling flat out lying, attacking family members, exploiting race, sex, and religion, and suppressing voter turnout as “clearly unethical” practices.
However, a not insignificant number of professionals expressed a degree of comfort with unethical practices. A few examples:
- 74% of professionals said presenting a false and misleading attack on an opponent or member of his or her family was “clearly unethical.” 22% labeled the practice “questionable.”
- Just 37% of professionals said the use of “push polls” was “clearly unethical.” Another 38% called the practice “questionable,” while 17% said the use of push polls was “acceptable.”
- 68% of consultants said appeals to voters “based on racism, sexism, or religious intolerance” are “clearly unethical.” But Another 25% labeled such appeals “questionable” with 5% of respondents calling them “acceptable.”
The survey also asked political professionals what unethical practices they’ve encountered in their careers from false or irresponsible advertising to skirting campaign rules and improper coordination with independent groups. Among the numbers that stood out: 39% of political professionals said “improper coordination with independent groups” was a practice they’ve encountered.
Political Predictions for 2020 and Beyond
The 2018 midterm cycle only heightened the tension between practitioners pushing for more digital spending and those advising campaigns to still funnel the majority of their media dollars into TV. While it’s doubtful digital spending will reach parity with TV spending in next year’s presidential cycle, a large majority of political professionals believe it will reach parity by the 2024 presidential cycle.
67% of professionals said it’s either very likely or somewhat likely that digital spend will catch up fully by 2024, with just 30% labeling it somewhat or very unlikely.
Another looming challenge for the industry: artificial intelligence, which is deepening its market penetration. Just over half of professionals in our survey said they’ve encountered tools and analysis driven by AI. And while most consultants believe these tools will play an important role in the future of campaigns, only 16 percent said they are actually concerned automation will cost industry jobs.
Regarding the 2020 presidential race, exactly half of the political consultants surveyed think President Trump will win reelection next year. As for his eventual Democratic opponent, the current money is on former Vice President Joe Biden. A plurality of consultants in our survey (29%) think Biden is the most likely general election opponent for Trump, followed by California Sen. Kamala Harris (18%), Beto O’Rourke (9%), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (7%), Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (3%), and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (3%).
Sens. Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand were each under 2 percent in our survey, while another 5 percent of political professionals said “someone else” and a sizable 19 percent of professionals put themselves in the “Don’t know” camp, reflecting the high degree of uncertainty over how the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will ultimately play out.
As for the likelihood of serious political upheaval ahead of the 2020 election in the form of a presidential resignation or impeachment, political professionals don’t rate either of those as strong possibilities. 77% of professionals called it unlikely that President Trump resigns before the 2020 election and 70% of professionals think it’s unlikely he is impeached ahead of 2020.