We are approaching the Olympics of political campaigns. The same way the quadrennial sporting event changes cities’ skylines and countries’ economies while making hometown heroes into global stars, the presidential cycle defines the course of a nation, invariably reshapes the consulting industry and makes stars out of a handful of the thousands of practitioners who compete in the cycle’s trials.
As decision-time nears for some of the biggest names in U.S. politics (consider that by this time last cycle, Jeb Bush and Jim Webb had already opened committees), consultants and campaign workers are mulling what the next two years might hold. Over the next few months, wealthy ideologues and interests, advocacy groups, and dozens of campaigns will begin staffing up and reshuffling priorities in preparation for the big event. New centers of power and influence will emerge. And while poor client decisions today won’t be fatal, wise political professionals can draw lessons from the last cycle as they plan for the future.
The first lesson from 2016 is that candidates will sweep up a good portion of the industry without much left for chance: top contenders pull in their own longtime loyalists, whether it’s Hillary Clinton and aide Huma Abedin or longtime Bernie Sanders confidant Jeff Weaver, whom Sanders in 2015 plucked from political semi-retirement as a comic book store proprietor. But for striving consultants without close ties to a candidate or experience on a past presidential campaign, the future is more uncertain.
Ballotpedia already lists 55 potential candidates for the Democratic nomination, and names like Kennedy III, O’Rourke, Harris, Gillibrand, Gabbard, Warren, Sanders are tempting for the left. The wrong choice, though, can equal a short ride. In the 2016 cycle, Republican Govs. Rick Perry and Scott Walker were the first to drop out, and 18 candidates had left the field before Super Tuesday on March 1. On the Democratic side, Lawrence Lessig’s reformist candidacy was on and off in just a couple months.
As the Clintons’ influence over the Democratic Party continues to recede, opportunity grows for new organizations to take up some of the space held by Clinton-supporting PACs like Correct the Record. In fact, online may be the greatest opportunity for Democrats to gain ground.
A recent report by NewsWhip found 88 left-wing web publishers versus 357 on the right. NewsWhip found this imbalance carried over to engagement, where right-wing publishers greatly outweigh the left. For loyalists, ideologues, and opportunists alike, the presidential cycle is awash with money for third-party efforts. Last time around, 17 PACs raised $10 million or more to support or attack 11 of the top candidates. The consultants with the best connections have an easier path, but those with the best ideas can win, too.
Another critical factor for consultants jockeying for key roles to consider is the full 2019 landscape: Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi all have governor races; there are legislative contests in Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, New Jersey; Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and Tampa all have open seat mayoral contests. Should the Democratic field shake up going into 2020, or Trump’s legal troubles mount, winners from these contests will still have space to join a top presidential race or outside effort. Remember that Trump shuffled campaign staff in the spring and summer of 2016 as his star ascended, and the late John McCain was so short staffed in 2008 he was carrying his own bags through the airport before his fortunes changed after the New Hampshire primary.
The final serious area to consider is the issue advocacy surge headed into the presidential and next congressional cycle (and yes, all of these House and Senate campaigns will be staffing up, too). Medicare for All, minimum wage, Green New Deal, and criminal justice reform advocacy will continue to grow with organizational and impact investor support.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the hungry consultant surveying the 2019 – 2020 landscape is that there is plenty of work to go around.
Adriel Hampton is creative director at The Adriel Hampton Group where he focuses on progressive campaigns and causes. He recently created The Really Online Lefty League PAC.