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Of the $790 million spent by state political party and caucus committees during the 2001-2002 cycle, almost half went to a collection of strategists, pollsters and mailing houses that specialize in swaying voters.

Just 51 consulting firms accounted for about $346 million in spending, paced by Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns, a Democratic firm, and GOP consultant National Media Inc. Both worked on major races in key battleground areas in the mid-term elections. GMMB received $45.6 million and National Media got $41.6 million for their efforts.

Those totals include money that the consultants then use to buy air time from television broadcasters, cable outlets and radio stations. How much was impossible to determine—consulting firms are not obligated to disclose how they spend the money they get from political parties—and therefore how much the firms actually earned was also unclear.

It comes as little surprise that state parties rely so heavily on outside consultants, since few, if any, party operations are sophisticated enough or have the financial resources to support their own in-house media producers and mail houses. In addition, parties sometimes hire consultants with direct experience, including former executive directors and chairmen.

“As elections have become more sophisticated, you’ve seen the influence drop down from the federal to the state level,” said Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University. The result, she said, is that consultants “are pretty much an entrenched part of the landscape of how elections are run in this country.”

In addition to GMMB and National Media, most of the top consultants are primarily concentrated on media services, which involve the creation or placement of television and radio advertisements. Of the thousands of minutes of political advertising broadcast to viewers and listeners across the country, most bore the fingerprints of just six companies: Democratic firms GMMB, LUC Media and Media Strategies and Research; Republican firms Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, National Media and Strategic Media Services.

These six firms were paid $149.6 million for their services by the state party and caucus committees. Specialists in voter communication and outreach, by contrast, were far less dominant. The three involved in direct mail accounted for at most $24.5 million of the committees’ expenditures.

Consultants, in brief

The parties’ use of consultants began more than a century ago. Independent experts the Center spoke with cited mass movements, such as populism and women’s suffrage, that took control away from party bosses and political machines and greatly expanded the number of voters. “Parties could no longer campaign the way they used to,” said David Dulio, a political scientist now at Oakland University in Michigan, who studied political consultants while at the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies at American University.

While parties have traditionally been good at hosting events and raising money, they proved less adept with television. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when parties began to revitalize at the federal level, that they started to provide technical services such as lighting and editing for broadcasting as well as help with polling and direct mail.

Even then, “the candidate still had to bring with them somebody to write the copy and to produce the spot,” a situation that Dulio said led to parties taking the position that, “we’re not going to offer media services, direct mail . . . anymore; we’re going to let the consultants do that.”

Robin Kolodny, a researcher at Temple University, said that campaigns, which have very high staff turnover, are more efficient for not having to specially train employees who will soon leave. She compared it to the example of a mother who uses a day care center instead of a nanny. “If the nanny gets sick or quits on the spot, you don’t have the infrastructure, but if someone calls in sick at the day care center they get another substitute.”

The main players

The top 10 states with the highest spending on consultants were also among the most politically competitive in the 2001-2002 election cycle. They spent more than $241 million on firms providing media, telephone, direct mail and voter turnout services. The two parties in Florida, for example, where Gov. Jeb Bush ran for election in one of the most closely-watched races in the nation, spent more than twice as much on consulting as was spent in any other state, with Republican firms receiving $38 million, almost two-thirds of the total. One firm, Murphy Pintak Gaudier Hudome, the number two Republican firm in this study and Gov. Bush’s main media consultant in 2002, received more than $16 million, or two of every five dollars spent on consultants by the state’s Republican Party.

Georgia saw several battles, highlighted by contests between incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland and GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss and a race between Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and Republican Sonny Perdue. State committees in the Peach State spent $21 million on consultants, with top Democratic firms GMMB and Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper receiving roughly $5.6 million and $2.4 million respectively. National Media got $4.7 million from the Georgia GOP, receiving more only from state parties in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.

While many of the top firms operate throughout the country, there are a few firms that have managed to be successful primarily as regional players. Two of the firms in the top overall, Murphy Pintak and the Democratic firm LUC Media, did most of their business in only one state, Florida.

Among the top Democratic firms, Message and Media works predominantly with the New Jersey Democratic committee, which paid it almost $4 million during 2001-2002. Brad Lawrence, the firm’s president and a co-founder, says that it does more than 60 percent of its work in New Jersey, sometimes working with other firms like GMMB.

Three direct mail firms are among the top consultants in the country, receiving $24.5 million from at least 64 Democratic and Republican party committees. The first two, Republican-oriented Majority Strategies Inc. and Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper, are among the top 10 firms nationally and received nearly $8.2 and $7 million from state parties respectively. Both firms were heavily dependent on single committees in key states, Majority Strategies in Ohio and Malchow Schlackman in Georgia.

The consulting firms receiving the most money tended to be present and, in many cases, dominant in a number of the top states. Several firms also worked for their respective national parties. In fact, many consultants have strong ties to the parties they work with, said Dulio, adding that “roughly half of all consultants have had some work experience with a national or state party.” That includes the principals at several of the top firms studied: Frank Greer of GMMB worked at the Department of Labor during the Carter Administration while his partner Jim Margolis coordinated Illinois for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign and took a leave from consulting to work for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Sam Van Voorhis worked for the Ohio Republican House Committee before he headed the Columbus-based Majority Strategies. The result, said Dulio, is “a party network that consultants are a part of [that] extends into the private political consulting world.”

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