June 17, 1998

Don’t Blame Us

The Views Of Political Consultants

Introduction and Summary

Political consultants have clear consciences: Most do not think campaign practices that suppress turnout, use scare tactics and take facts out of context are unethical. They are nearly unanimous — 97% — in the belief that negative advertising is not wrong, and few blame themselves for public disillusionment with the political process.

Instead, consultants most often point fingers at the news media, the public, and even their own clients. According to these political pros, the news media is the leading cause of voter cynicism today. The media pays disproportionate attention to negative tactics and is harming the system by discouraging good candidates from running, they say.

Solid majorities implicate the public for campaigns turning negative, saying Americans are more responsive to this type of ad than to positive ones.

Most (66%) view the public as poorly informed and fault it for lacking good judgment about issues. As many as 42% of the consultants polled by the Pew Research Center think that with enough money in hand they can sell voters on a weak campaigner. Few see a major problem with political contributions influencing government policy.

Consultants have a mixed view at best of their own clients. While 52% rate congressional candidates as excellent or good, 48% say they are only fair or poor, and 42% believe candidate quality is slipping. As many as 44% say they have helped elect candidates who they were eventually sorry to see serve in office.

But, consultants generally have few regrets. A candidate’s ability to govern effectively is secondary in deciding whether to take on a race. Instead, a candidate’s political beliefs and ability to pay are primary considerations. By a margin of three-to-one, political pros think that a weak message is a bigger barrier to electoral success than a weak campaigner.

Consistent with their world view, consultants are dubious about most political reform proposals. Majorities give negative ratings to ending soft money, limiting spending by issue advocacy groups and public financing of campaigns. Increasing individual contribution limits is a better idea, say 65%. A 51% majority favors free television time for candidates.

Most consultants believe there should be a code of ethics for their profession, and two-thirds are aware of the American Association of Political Consultants’ code. However, few think it has much of an effect on their own behavior or on their peers.

Consultants rate their jobs highly, and they say they do what they do for the thrill of competition, the money and political beliefs. Very few say they are motivated by political power or influence.

There are sharp partisan differences between consultants. In general, Democratic consultants are not as happy as Republicans. Democratic consultants are much more concerned about the role of money in elections and are stronger supporters of campaign finance reforms; Republican consultants are more satisfied with their own jobs and with the quality of candidates for national office.

These are among the main findings of a survey of 200 professional political consultants, conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. The survey of professional pollsters, fundraisers, media consultants, and general political consultants was conducted from November 1997 to March 1998.1

If It Works, Do It

Political consultants say a candidate’s message is the key to winning an election — and they place few limits on just what that message can be. Most consultants are unconcerned about personal attacks or other forms of negative campaigning. Rather, they see negative campaigning as an effective strategy, and fully 81% say when campaigns turn negative, it is usually because a consultant — not a candidate — recommends it.

Consultants do draw the line at making campaign statements that are factually untrue (98% say this tactic is “clearly unethical”) and at using push polls, which provide negative information about an opponent under the pretense of taking a poll (70% say this is clearly unethical). But consultants describe other tactics as “acceptable” or, at worst, “questionable.” Fully 82% say focusing primarily on criticizing an opponent is an acceptable campaign strategy, for example, and 72% say focusing mainly on the kind of person a candidate is — rather than on a candidate’s issues — is acceptable. More than one-third of consultants (36%) say using scare tactics is acceptable, while just 14% say it is clearly unethical.

Democrats Fret More, But Do The Same

Political consultants are divided over whether negative campaigning has increased in the last decade — 50% said campaigns are more likely to go negative today, while 46% said there has been little change from 10 years ago. But there are strong partisan differences in consultants’ views concerning negative campaigns. More Democratic consultants than Republican consultants say negative campaigning is on the rise, for example (57% vs. 38%), and more Democrats point to negative campaigning as a cause of voter cynicism (73% vs. 57%).

But greater concern does not mean Democrats are less willing to go negative. Regardless of party, consultants are virtually unanimous (95% among Republicans, 100% among Democrats) in their belief that negative campaigning is not unethical. And Democratic consultants are at least as likely as Republicans to say that criticizing an opponent, using scare tactics, and trying to suppress voter turnout are acceptable or, at worst, questionable tactics. Some 42% of Democrats say scare tactics are acceptable, for example, compared to 29% of Republicans.

Asked to define negative campaigning in their own words, most consultants (74%) listed strategies that focus primarily on an opponent’s record or other perceived weaknesses. A substantially smaller share of the consultants (31%) defined negative campaigning as simply comparing the two candidates’ records.

More importantly, according to consultants, negative campaigning works. Nearly all (98%) agree the news media gives more coverage to negative strategies, and 83% agree that voters respond more to negative campaigning. In fact, while many of those who see negative campaigning on the rise blame consultants themselves (37%), nearly one-in-four (24%) say “the public” is most responsible for the change.

Message, Money Win Elections

The lack of concern about negative campaigning may reflect, more generally, professional consultants’ belief that the strength of a candidate’s message is essential to winning elections. Overall, the quality of a candidate’s message was ranked as most important to winning by a strong majority of the campaign consultants (82%) — substantially more than the percent who gave a similarly high rating to the partisan distribution in a state or House district (52%) or to a candidate’s abilities as a campaigner (46%).

Democratic and Republican consultants emphasize the importance of a candidate’s message in roughly equal numbers (79% of Democrats rating as most important, 86% of Republicans), but Democrats say money is just as important. Fully 83% of Democrats rank the amount of money available to a campaign as a most important factor to winning an election, compared to just 65% of Republicans.

Weak Candidates No Shoo-In

While two-thirds of consultants say voters are poorly informed about major policy issues, they are divided over how easy it is to persuade voters to support weak candidates. Some 42% said it is relatively easy to sell a “mediocre candidate,” while more than half (56%) said selling a mediocre candidate is at least somewhat difficult. And dealing with a candidate’s unpopular stands on an issue is even harder: 62% said overcoming unpopular issue positions is relatively difficult, while 37% said it is relatively easy.

Roughly four-in-ten political consultants (42%) say they have a great deal of confidence in the “wisdom of the American people” on Election Day. Notably, consultants express less confidence than those who are actually elected — fully 64% of members of Congress interviewed in a separate survey said they have a great deal of confidence in Americans’ electoral decisions. But consultants have more confidence in the public than do appointed government leaders in Washington. Just 34% of presidential appointees and senior civil servants said they have a great deal of confidence in the American people on Election Day.2

Although consultants say campaigns greatly influence the outcome of elections, few consultants believe their profession has much of an effect on the democratic process more broadly. Only 12% believe consultants have a great deal of impact on the U.S. public policy agenda, and just 10% think they have a great deal of impact on the way political leaders conduct themselves in office. While a significant number of consultants do believe they have a fair amount of influence on the policy agenda and the conduct of leaders (42% and 39%, respectively), just as many characterize their impact as not very much.

Consultants, Public Differ on Negative Campaigns

Just as they downplay their influence on the political system, consultants assume relatively little responsibility for widespread public cynicism. When asked about various factors which may contribute to voter cynicism, consultants place the most blame on the media. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say the way the news media reports on politics has a great deal to do with growing voter cynicism. Another 28% say media coverage contributes a fair amount.

Fewer than three-in-ten (27%) say politicians’ poor performance while in office contributes a great deal to voter cynicism. Only 25% believe the way money is raised in campaigns is a major factor in voter cynicism — 36% say this contributes a fair amount to cynicism, though 38% say not very much or not at all. Democratic consultants are much more inclined than Republicans to link fundraising to public cynicism (77% vs. 38%).

Consultants assign the least degree of blame to the practice they are most responsible for — negative campaigning. When asked to what extent negative campaigning causes voter cynicism, only 24% of consultants say a great deal. Four-in-ten (43%) say a fair amount, 30% not very much and 3% not at all.

But the public disagrees with this assessment. Americans are most concerned about negative campaigning — 60% said this practice bothers them very much. They are also troubled by the amount of money politicians spend on campaigns (56%) and what politicians promise “to get elected” (53%). Political advertising is a much lower concern — only 32% of Americans said this bothers them very much. Finally, news coverage about campaigns — which among consultants is the top cause of cynicism — bothered the public very little in 1996. Only 15% said this bothers them very much, more than half (57%) said not too much or not at all.3

Consultants again blame the media for problems with the nation’s political system. Fully 55% of consultants said “good people being discouraged from running for office by the amount of media attention given to candidates’ personal lives” is a major problem. Substantially fewer consultants placed as much blame in other areas: 37% said “elected officials caring more about getting reelected than doing what’s best for the country” is a major problem, while 24% said “political contributions having too much influence on government policy” is a major problem. In fact, four-in-ten (41%) said political contributions influencing government policy is not much of a problem at all.

Lukewarm Support for Campaign Finance Reform

Consultants express little enthusiasm for campaign finance reform. While a majority (65%) supports increasing individual contribution limits and half think providing free television time to candidates is a good idea, few support other proposals that would potentially rein in funding sources.

Only 26% think providing public financing to candidates who accept spending limits is an excellent idea; 16% say it’s a good idea. A majority says public financing is only a fair or a poor idea. Ending soft money is even less popular with consultants. Only 16% consider this an excellent idea, 17% say it’s a good idea. The vast majority (67%) say doing away with soft money would be only a fair or poor idea. The least popular campaign finance reform proposal is limiting spending by issue advocacy groups. Most consultants believe that campaigning by issue advocacy groups on behalf of a candidate generally helps the campaign — not to mention the fact that in many cases it represents free advertising for the candidate.

But there are striking partisan differences on the issue of campaign finance reform, reflecting Democratic consultants’ heightened concern about the role of money in elections. More Democrats than Republicans say money is an important factor to winning elections, and Democrats overwhelmingly say the way money is raised in campaigns contributes to voter cynicism (77%, compared to 38% among Republicans).

Given these partisan differences over the role of money, Democratic consultants — whose clients traditionally have a harder time raising money — favor each reform proposal more than the Republicans, with one exception. Some 42% of Democrats rate public financing of campaigns as an excellent idea, for example, compared to just one percent of Republicans. Similarly, 42% of Democratic consultants give strong support to free television time for candidates, compared to 9% among Republicans. Democrats are also more supportive than Republicans of ending soft money and limiting spending by issue advocacy groups. Nonetheless, even majorities of Democrats believe these ideas are only fair at best.

The one idea a majority of GOP consultants do endorse is raising individual contributions — 54% say this is an excellent idea, compared to 30% of Democratic consultants.

Misinformation Most Common Ethical Violation

Although consultants do not believe negative campaigning is an unethical campaign tactic, they do acknowledge that unethical practices occur in campaigns. In fact, 41% say unethical practices occur sometimes, and another 10% said they occur very often. Asked to list the most common unethical practices, half of the consultants (51%) mentioned the type of information campaigns provide to voters — tactics such as misrepresenting a candidate’s issue positions, lying about an opponent, and false advertising. Other consultants listed unethical practices relating to fundraising and campaign spending (30%), and the way some consultants treat their clients (23%).

While push-polling — providing voters with negative information about an opponent under the pretense of taking a poll — has drawn increased attention in recent elections, just 11% of consultants mentioned push-polling as a common unethical practice. Similarly, only 21% of consultants said they knew of some or many campaigns that used push-polls in 1996.

Consultants are divided over the effectiveness of several strategies for curbing unethical campaign practices. For example, 56% said campaigns have become more careful about the content of their advertising because of “ad watches” — news stories that focus on the accuracy of campaign ads. In contrast, 43% said ad watches have not had very much impact.

The code of ethics of the American Association of Political Consultants seems to have even less impact. Roughly two-thirds of c
onsultants (64%) said they are familiar with the Association’s code, but most doubted its effectiveness: 81% said it has little effect on the behavior of their peers, and 54% said it has little effect on their own behavior. At the same time, a strong majority of consultants (81%) said there should be a code of ethics and, among those who support having a code, 68% said the professional association should be able to censure consultants for violations.

Democratic Consultants Less Satisfied

For the most part, consultants are highly satisfied with their jobs. Fully 60% say they are very satisfied with their current job, and another 35% are mostly satisfied. They express much higher levels of satisfaction than the public — only 43% of employed Americans are very satisfied with their jobs.4

Consultants are similar to government leaders in this regard. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 57% of members of Congress, 64% of presidential appointees and 56% of Senior Executive Service members said they were very satisfied with their jobs. Job satisfaction is lower among Democratic consultants than among Republicans: 54% of Democrats are very satisfied, compared to 70% of Republicans.

Democratic consultants are also less satisfied with the quality of the candidates running for the House and Senate these days. Overall, consultants give today’s candidates mixed marks: 52% rate them excellent or good; 48% rate them only fair or poor. However, the gap in opinion between Democratic and Republican consultants is striking. Fully 71% of GOP consultants characterize today’s candidates as excellent or good, compared to only 39% of Democratic consultants. In addition, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say the quality of congressional candidates has gotten worse in the time that they have worked in politics (52% vs. 27%, respectively).

Republican and Democratic consultants alike are critical of the journalists who cover their trade. Only 32% of consultants rate the quality of political journalists as excellent or good. Fully two-thirds (67%) give them an only fair or poor rating. Nearly half (49%) say the quality of political journalists has gotten worse in the time they have worked in politics; only 10% say it has gotten better.

But political consultants give themselves relatively high ratings: 56% rate the quality of professional political consultants as excellent or good; 42% say it is only fair or poor. A plurality (36%) say the quality of consultants has gotten better over time, 32% say it has gotten worse, and the remaining 31% say it has stayed about the same. Slightly more Republican consultants than Democrats rate their profession as excellent or good: 63% vs. 53%.

Why They Do It

What motivates consultants most is the thrill of competition. This factor outweighs political beliefs, money and political power. Nearly one-third (32%) cite competition as the primary motivator; 26% say political beliefs, and an equal percentage say money. Another 9% say power and influence are what most motivate consultants.

Indeed, while consultants earn substantial incomes — over 70% of them have family incomes of $100,000 a year or more — money does not appear to be a leading reason for consultants’ job satisfaction. Consultants who are not at the top of the earning scale (those with family incomes of less than $150,000) are no less satisfied with their work than are those who earn more.

Democrats and Republicans both cite the thrill of competition most often. However, Democrats place slightly more importance on money as a primary motivator than do Republicans (30% vs. 22%, respectively). GOP consultants see political power and influence as a somewhat greater lure (14% vs. 5% of Democratic consultants).

In considering whether or not to take on a race, consultants place almost as much importance on a candidate’s ability to raise money and pay the bills as they do on his or her political beliefs. Fifty-five percent say the candidate’s financial situation is a very important factor in considering taking on a race; 58% say the candidate’s beliefs are very important. Democratic consultants place somewhat more importance on political beliefs than do their GOP counterparts (62% vs. 53%, respectively.)

Consultants place less importance on the candidate’s ability to govern effectively. Fewer than four-in-ten (39%) say this factor is very important in deciding to take on a race; another 40% say it is somewhat important. Nearly one-in-five say the candidate’s ability to lead is not important.

A candidate’s chances of winning are of even less concern to a consultant in considering whether to take on a race. Only 16% say this is a very important factor in choosing a potential client. Most consultants say the candidate’s chances of winning are somewhat important.

Who Are They?

Political consultants are disproportionately white, male and wealthy. More than half have annual family incomes of more than $150,000 — one-third make over $200,000 a year. They are highly educated: 94% graduated from college and 40% have graduate degrees. They are also relatively young. More than three-fourths (78%) of the principals and senior associates are under the age of 50; nearly four-in-ten are under 40.

Consultants are less religious than the public at large. Fully 22% describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, compared to just 8% of the public. One-in-ten consultants say they are born-again Christians, far fewer than the 33% of Americans who place themselves in that category.

Most consultants have prior experience working in politics or government. Nearly two-thirds (62%) worked for a national, state or local political party or party committee at some time. More than half (54%) worked in the office of a federal, state or local elected official. And an equal percentage have worked in government. Less than one-third (30%) have experience working for the news media.

Many consultants started in the profession with hands-on campaign experience. Nearly two-thirds (65%) said in their first paid campaign job they were part of the staff; 30% started out as consultants. More started on local and state races than on congressional or presidential contests (45% vs. 32% and 14%, respectively).

  1. We are especially grateful to James Thurber and Candice Nelson for their suggestions concerning the sample design and survey topics.
  2. Figures for members of Congress, presidential appointees, and senior civil servants based on surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center between November 1997 and February 1998. See “Washington Leaders Wary of Public Opinion,” April 17, 1998.
  3. Pew Research Center, “Voters Know More Than in ’92: Class Collisions in Response to Buchanan, Nationwide,” February 1996.
  4. Pew Research Center, “Jonesboro Compels News Audiences: Democratic Congressional Chances Helped By Clinton Ratings.” April 1998.