While public perceptions of the industry vary, the truth is that political consultants are a valuable resource for the political process.  They bring a wealth of professional political knowledge to campaigns at all levels.  The question for your campaign is, should you use consultants to help you win?  If so, who?

In this article, we’re going to take an in depth look at political consultants to see if and how you can use them to win your campaign.  First, though, it is important to define what a political consultant is and what types of political consultants you have to choose from.

Consultants vs. Hobbyists

Let’s face it, almost anyone can set out a shingle and call themselves a political consultant.  In fact, many do.  As you begin your campaign, it’s important to delineate between professional political consultants and political hobbyists.

Professional political consultants are just that…. professionals.  They practice their craft full-time, or nearly full-time, and operate in a professional manner.  They keep business records, and report their consulting income on their tax returns.  They have years of experience in campaign work, and continually work to improve their craft.  They belong to professional organizations, like the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC), read trade publications like Campaigns & Elections magazine, and attend/teach at seminars on new trends in campaign tactics.

Political hobbyists are often, but not always, people who have some amount of political pull in your district.  They may be the brother of a state representative who now moonlights running campaigns, or a former city councilman who is now owns a retail business but likes to advise local candidates on the side.  Political hobbyists can also be ward leaders who take payments “on the side” for their advice, or any other type of advisor-for-hire.

Note that we’re making a distinction here between those who offer advice free of charge (volunteer advisors) and those who moonlight as consultants, and charge for their advice (political hobbyists).  Volunteer advisors can be a valuable addition to your team when they have knowledge, contacts, and/or advice that help your effort.

Is there anything wrong with using political hobbyists as your paid campaign consultants?  Not really, but you should know what you are getting into.  Professional political consultants who are members of the AAPC pledge to follow a code of ethics, and often are business-people without a personal vested interest in your campaign, other than their professional interest in helping you win.

Be careful when hiring hobbyists with their own political agendas.

Political hobbyists, on the other hand, often have their own agendas, apart from just seeing you win.  Think about it: if you hire your local state representative’s favorite ward leader as your finance director, on the suggestion of the state rep, who will your new hire have allegiance to: you or her political benefactor who got her the job?

That being said, there may be times when political hobbyists are the right decision for your campaign.  Just go into the relationship with caution.

Types of Political Consultants

There are several different types of professional political consultants, each with their own specialties:

General Consultants – These political consultants help guide the entire strategy for your campaign, and can write your campaign plan, develop your message and targeting, and provide advice through Election Day.  Often, general consultants are a “one stop shop,” and they, or someone in their firm, can provide help with media & communications, fundraising, grassroots operations and more.

Media Consultants – These consultants develop your advertising, shoot commercials, produce radio spots, buy airtime on TV and radio, and provide advice on your campaign’s message and collateral materials.

Fundraising Consultants – As the name implies, these consultants specialize in political fundraising, including major donor, online, direct mail, and event-based giving.

Direct Mail Consultants – These consultants specialize in both fundraising and non-fundraising direct mail.  They can help you design your mail pieces, choose suitable mailing lists, and process and mail your pieces.

Web Consultants – These consultants design and manage political websites, e-mail lists and social media networks.

Grassroots Consultants – These consultants, who are found in a small but growing number of campaigns, design grassroots political programs, get out the vote operations, absentee ballot programs, local political rallies and volunteer organizations.

Most professional fundraising consultants charge a flat fee and will not work on a percentage basis.

Be aware that the vast majority of political consultants are paid a monthly fee, or a combination of retainer and monthly fee, occasionally with a success bonus if you win or if certain benchmarks are hit (e.g. signing up 10,000 volunteers or winning key endorsements).  Media consultants are usually paid a percentage of the media buy (e.g. 15% of the total TV buy) but this normally comes from the TV stations / networks as a discount off of their face value ad rates.  Direct mail consultants are often paid a fee per piece mailed.

Many, many campaigns who want to hire fundraising consultants do so in the hope that the consultant will accept a percentage of the money he or she raises as payment (often called commission or contingency fundraising).  Note that while you may find a local political hobbyist who will work under an arrangement like that, for a variety of ethical and business-related reasons, most professional political consultants will not work on a contingency basis, and charge a flat fee or monthly fee for their fundraising work.

Remember, Consultants Are Not Magicians

Consultants are often a great addition to your campaign team, but they are not magicians.  If your campaign is running against the tide in your district, a consultant may help, but they can’t change your political environment.  If your candidate refuses to raise money by making calls and one-on-one asks, hiring a fundraising consultant won’t solve your problem, unless that consultant’s job is to train your candidate to raise money, then to go and work on other fundraising projects.  Consultants can be a big help, but only rarely will they be able to solve systemic problems in your campaign.

Also, it is worth noting that if you do hire consultants, you should listen to them.  That’s not to say that your consultants will always be right or that you should always do what they tell you to do – but at least hear them out.  Spend lots of time picking the right consultants.  Pay them enough to allow them to do their jobs.  Then listen to what they have to say.  I have seen far too many campaigns that hire top-notch consultants and pay them handsomely, only to have a candidate and/or campaign manager who won’t even listen when the consultant tells them it’s time to turn the ship in a different direction.

What Campaigns Need Which Consultants?

Most campaigns could benefit from professional political help.  Only the smallest campaigns, which are completely volunteer driven with no professional staff, which raise very little money, and which are for very, very local offices, can make do with out any political help.

Small campaigns will benefit from hiring a general political consultant – someone who can help them write their campaign plan and provide general advice on the campaign.  Mid-range and larger campaigns will also benefit from a fundraising consultant to plan and execute a fundraising strategy.  Generally, only the largest campaigns will need a grassroots consultant.

Campaigns that plan to use direct mail as part of their strategy will need a direct mail consultant.  Campaigns that plan to be on TV or radio need a media consultant.  Likewise, campaigns that are designing anything more than the most basic website will need a web consultant.

When choosing what types of consultants your campaign will need, also keep your paid staffing plans in mind.  If you’ve got a top notch, full-time, paid finance director, you may not need a fundraising consultant.  Of course, no matter what type of staff you have, if you’re going up on TV, you will most likely need a media consultant.

Know your talents, and the talents of your staff.  Why spend weeks trying to design a website and end up with a mediocre product, when you could hire a good web team that will have a great looking site up in a week or two?

Likewise, if your team could benefit from a more professional fundraising approach, should your group spend time researching fundraising best practices and trying to implement them with unsure results, or should you hire a professional who knows the game, has done it before, and can hit the ground running with your campaign?  I’d say that if you have the money, you should opt for the professional help.

Finding the Right Consultants

Finding a great consultant can be a bit tricky.  Every consultant will tell you that they are the best – remember, professional consultants are business-people, so selling themselves is part of their job.  The best way to pick the best consultant is to ask lots of questions, talk to a number of consultants before making your decision, and seek advice from other political pros.

Here are some questions you should be asking when you interview potential consultants:

  1. Are you a full-time, professional political consultant?
  2. How long have you been in business?
  3. Are you a member of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC)?
  4. What size campaign do you normally consult on?
  5. What are your specialties?
  6. Have you ever consulted on a race in my state? My district?
  7. Who are some of your past clients?
  8. How many races did you win / lose last cycle?
  9. Can I call some references?

This last question is crucial: if you’re interested in working with the consultant, get the names of some references, and call them to get their impressions of this particular consultant.

Also, while it is important to ask questions like, “How many races did you win / lose last year?”it is important to keep the answer in context.  If you’re talking to a Democratic political consultant and last cycle was a good Republican year, the fact that he won 2 races and lost 6 may not be as bad as it sounds… actually, it could be really very good, depending on which races they were.  For fundraising consultants, the question might be, “How many of your campaigns last cycle met their fundraising goal?” etc.

In looking for consultants to interview, check with politicians in your party who have run for the office you are seeking, or who have run in your area before, and ask them if they have any recommendations.  Also, check out the website of the American Association of Political Consultants and the “Political Pages” section of Campaigns & Elections Magazine, both of which provide lists of consultants in various areas and with varying specialties.

Once you’ve hired a consultant for your campaign, be sure to read How to Deal with Political Consulting Firms for tips on how to best utilize their help.