Even before Donald Trump’s campaign started racking up wins, consultants were brainstorming ways to derail him. A few went rogue and set up guerrilla Super PACs to snipe at the businessman with TV and radio buys — an effort that has grown in recent weeks. Some took their frustration to Twitter where they battled the candidate’s avatar in 140-character bursts. Others argued for a wide scale attack funded by big name GOP donors, but the party’s donor class initially wouldn’t commit.
Behind the scenes, several longtime consultants have even argued for some sort of official action from the American Association of Political Consultants, a trade group representing the campaign industry.
For some, Trump’s call for the "shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and his characterization of illegal immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” meant he was guilty of using race in a way that violates the AAPC's code of ethics. As the primary season got underway in earnest last month, top members of the AAPC argued behind the scenes about the group’s need to publicly repudiate Trump — discussions that are still alive.
“He’s clearly doing things that fall outside of the standards that we set for ourselves through our code of ethics – that you’re not going to use race in such a reprehensible way,” said Art Hackney, chairman of the AAPC. “We’re looking at all the people who are advisors to Trump, but to what degree are they advising that guy or are they just hanging on for dear life to ride that horse? What does that mean in terms of the standards? That’s going to be a major focus of our board retreat in March.”
Now, Trump is coming off wins in Mississippi, Michigan and Hawaii on Tuesday and headed toward what could be decisive contests on March 15 in Ohio and Florida — winner-take-all states in the delegate count. Wins in those states could effectively end the possibility of the GOP establishment wresting the nomination from the hands of Trump in Cleveland.
So what would a Trump general election campaign look like? Many within the political industry worry it will be even uglier than his primary campaign.
The desire from some inside the industry to censure his campaign isn’t necessarily borne from jitters about a Trump presidency, or financial worries about another candidate running a similar consultant-free campaign. Whether he reaches the White House or not, there’s a good argument to be made that another Trump-like candidacy is unlikely given he started with nearly 100-percent name ID and has garnered unprecedented free media coverage.
Rather, several consultants C&E spoke to are concerned Trump’s appeals based on race and religion could be copied by other candidates running in races far from the spotlight of the national press. But what holds a group like the AAPC back from censuring Trump highlights the limits of the industry’s governance. Without, say, a licensing system, a group like the AAPC or another industry body isn't really in a position to litigate trade practices.
“I wish it were a licensed practice, but unfortunately everyone’s opinions matter the same,” Rex Elsass, an Ohio-based Republican media consultant working with Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign told C&E.
In an industry governed by democratic opinion, what could be considered a negative campaign tactic is entirely subjective. And singling out the Trump campaign, or consultants working for him, would be seen by many as arbitrary given that industry groups haven’t made it standard practice to publicly condemn specific campaigns or strategists.
“We’re all cast in the same light,” said Tom Edmonds, a Republican media consultant and former president of the AAPC.
Self-Policing in the Age of Trump
When it comes to the actual tradecraft of campaigns, consultants must police their own. The problem now, consultants tell C&E, is that in the current environment the industry’s incentive system isn’t enough to stop bad actors, of which Trump is simply the most visible offender for some.
“When I listen to some of our ‘young guns’ brag about their Machiavellian tactics and philosophy of winning at any cost, I squirm,” Walt De Vries, a veteran consultant, wrote in an email to AAPC leaders late last year.
De Vries and other members of the consulting old guard are worried that a new generation of consultant is willing to take on any candidate tilting anywhere across the spectrum. To wit, unscrupulous consultants take on bad candidates who in turn say bad things to get elected. Once in office, they’re the skunk at the party picnic.
Elsass’ firm, the Strategy Group for Media, was recently held up as an example of this. A profile in GQ noted how John Boehner, while the Ohio Republican was speaker, complained to Elsass about his client list of insurgent-type congressional candidates and congressmen. "A lot of your guys are on the bad list,” Boehner told Elsass, according to GQ.
Elsass doesn’t dispute the story, but he said the comment was made lightheartedly. “You want to work for good people and people won’t hire you if you’ve had questionable standards,” he said.
Moreover, he noted that campaigns can exploit the negative tactics of a rival or challenger, or that they sometimes backfire like in the case of Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway, whose 2010 “Aqua Buddha” ad likely did more damage to his campaign than that of Sen. Rand Paul (R).
“Where they pay the price is in their win-loss column,” said Elsass of consultants who cross the line with dishonest advertising.
Elsass accepts there’s been a deterioration in campaign rhetoric, but placed the blame on spending by outside groups, which is on the rise. During the 2010 cycle, 83 Super PACs reported $62,641,448 in IE spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign expenditures. In 2012, that rose to 1,310 groups spending $609,417,654. As of Feb. 25, CRP is tracking 2,216 Super PACs, which have total receipts of $547,491,508.
“Anytime you get one step removed from the candidate direct, you’re always going to have more liberty taken,” Elsass said.
Lift the limits on campaigns and allow candidates to be responsible for their own message, he suggested. “Then you’ll eliminate the need for Independent Expenditures that aren’t policed directly by the candidate and his [or her] reputation.”
The Same Old Problem
The campaign industry has been grappling with the issues of candidate quality and campaign rhetoric for decades. Despite the perceived downward trend, the AAPC’s leadership say they haven’t given up on improving political discourse.
AAPC President and Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said its wrong to pin the blame for what comes out of candidate’s mouths on the consulting industry.
“Whatever the ills of the system are at the moment, people tend to visit them on consultants,” he said. “Negative campaigns are consultants’ fault, et cetera, et cetera. And it’s usually wrong. The fact is what consultants do is more a symptom of the process and that’s been true for a very long time.”
If there is a harsher tone to today’s campaign rhetoric it certainly isn’t scaring people out of running for office. Between 2002 and 2014, there was a 21 percent increase in the number of congressional candidates running with the total field going from 1,384 to 1,678 two years ago. That’s down from a peak in 2010 when 2,198 candidates ran.
Budgets have increased, too. In 2002, congressional candidates raised a total of $979.3 million. That rose to $1.669 billion in 2014.
The field of presidential candidates has stayed relatively stable, but the amount raised by White House contenders has nearly tripled. In 2000, the presidential candidates raised $578.9 million, according to the FEC. That rose to $1.37 billion last presidential cycle. This year, spending is on pace to set a record, which should be a boon for consultants (though GOP consultants really aren’t sure what to expect from a Trump general election campaign).
The current crop of presidential candidates have spent $400 million on consulting services combined, about three times as much as was spent at a similar period in the 2012 campaign, according to a recent analysis by Adam Sheingate, who studies the consulting industry.
These numbers support an argument that Raymond Strother, one of the founders of the modern campaign industry, has been making. Cut-price consultants will take losing efforts on if it means a retainer check.
“It’s changed from passion for politics to strictly money,” Strother said.
But he ultimately agrees with Mellman: if the quality of candidates is dropping, it isn’t just consultants who are solely to blame.
“It’s a gumbo or a stew of events: money, consultants, candidates – it’s a whole lot of things and we’re all contributors,” he said. “The culture’s changed from winning with dignity, winning with honor to just winning.”
The Trump Test for The Industry
In just a few decades the industry has grown from a small group of practitioners — strategists like Joe Napolitan, Robert Goodman, Bob Squier, Doug Bailey, Matt Reese, Brad O'Leary and Jill Buckley were among the first. (In the early days of the industry, you could fit most of it around a steakhouse table in D.C.)
Now that campaigning has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business, consultants have tried to impose the kind of professional standards seen in other industries. But a candidate like Trump proves how futile that can be.
Think about the conundrum the AAPC faces if it did decide to take a public position on the ethics of the Trump campaign, or those associated with it. Don McGahn, a prominent D.C. election lawyer and former head of the FEC was hired by Trump to be his campaign’s attorney. Would he really face some sort of industry censure for representing a client employing the dark arts of campaigning? Almost all of the industry pros C&E spoke to for this piece found such a scenario hard to imagine.
“Negative campaigning is a moving target,” said Hackney. “Certainly the issue that concerns us is if people become wantonly negative in a campaign.”
That’s because it could creative a feedback loop, according to Hackney.
“You’re going to look at the end result being less and less good people wanting to run for office and you’re going to have less quality people in that political pool, and you’re going to have to resort to the negatives to get people elected,” he said.
Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski said she doesn’t want an industry group being the arbiter of tactics or the gatekeeper of who can run for office.
“Who is the judge of how far is too far?,” she asked. “Is it unethical if I expose [a rival candidate’s] warts? I don’t think so.”
She pointed to her long relationship with retiring California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) as a reason to take on non-establishment candidates. “There are longshot candidates who consultants take on even though they don’t have a chance, but it might be that that longshot candidate is who you think is best,” she said.
“In 1991, I went to work for Barbara Boxer who the pundits said had a 30-to-1 chance of getting out of the primary. But her positions on the issues resonated with me. I thought she was the kind of feisty person who could shake up the Senate. Most of my fellow consultants thought I was crazy.”
She added: “If you’re going to work for a longshot, it doesn’t mean you’re always trying to make money.”