Consultants are embarking on a round of soul searching after the 2016 cycle produced one of the most stunning upsets in modern political history with the industry mostly lined up on the wrong side.
Some in the consulting business are blaming the media for what they see as enabling Donald Trump and turning voters’ attention toward the horse race and away from policy issues, while others believe its time for campaign professionals to reexamine how they do their work.
“I think we can step back and reconsider how we do business,” Beth Becker, a Democratic digital consultant, told C&E. “But I don’t think consultants come out of this with a bad name. Trump won in spite of his shunning the consultant class.”
She added: “The role of the consultant is not dead.”
That’s not what some TV journalists have been reporting. CNN’s Jake Tapper was predicting doom and gloom for the industry during his Election Night coverage. “It’s going to put the polling industry out of business,” Tapper said of Trump’s win. “It’s going to put the voter projection industry out of business.”
Some aftershocks from Trump’s win are already being felt. GOP digital giant Target Victory revealed Thursday that it plans to downsize and split into an apolitical operation and a campaign-focused on. Other reorganizations will follow, but some consultants also want to see changes in how the media does its job.
Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican consultant who worked for Marco Rubio’s presidential this cycle, said it’s the networks who should stop doing polling, not campaigns. “There’s just too much polling going on,” he said. “The public is going to be the beneficiary if the networks decide polling is for the birds.”
Roe argued that the current media culture is obsessed with horse race coverage over exploring issues and that’s what has helped fuel Trump’s rise to the presidency. “What the media is supposed to be doing is telling people what the candidates stand for,” he said.
GOP media consultant Fred Davis made a similar rebuke to the press. “I think it is an indictment of the mainstream political press, of some polling techniques, and for sure an indictment of the establishment being unwilling to accept or even acknowledge the extreme anger of the people of America,” he said of Tuesday’s result.
Whether consultants now deriding the media for its horse-race coverage will look to produce policy-heavy advertising next cycle remains to be seen. Still, Roe said there will be changes to the consulting industry after this cycle.
“I think there will be [candidates] who think they can go it alone,” he said. “Just as Obama was the candidate who used social media as effectively as he did, Donald Trump used voter anger. The campaign was a middle finger to the establishment.”
But Roe doubts that a future congressional candidate can replicate what Trump did. “If I’m running for Congress and I decide I’m going to be obnoxious as hell, that’s not going to get coverage.”
Still, Roe admitted the playbook has changed. He noted that misspeaking or appearing unpolished in public appearances could now be considered an asset because it reveals genuine character in a candidate.
“I think candidates are going to feel more liberated to go out there and be who they are and let the chips fall as they may,” he said.