The Campaign Continues: How Political Consultants and Campaign Tactics Affect Public Policy

By Douglas A. Lathrop | Go to book overview

2

Political Consultants: Historical Origins and Methods

Behind-the-scenes political advisors have been fixtures in American elections since the early days of the republic. In the nineteenth century, the national party system provided an opportunity for savvy, regional power brokers to influence elections from the shadowy confines of political clubs. During the halcyon days of the party system, political bargains were made in legendary “smoke-filled rooms” by party bosses. The party bosses were in effect the men who chose the candidates and supplied the organizational talent and political know-how to get them elected. Although bossism came to be embodied by the cigar-chomping characters of Tammany Hall, they were actually a diverse lot. Martin Van Buren, for instance, the skillful tactician who ensured the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, was a party builder and a man with his own national ambitions. 1 Republican party activist Mark Hanna was a wealthy Ohio financier who masterminded William McKinley's campaign for the White House. Backroom advisors were so prominent in American politics that toward the end of the nineteenth century they became part of popular culture, exemplified by the satirist Thomas Nast's famous caricature of the party boss as an unscrupulous, corpulent, money-grubbing fixer. These early party advisors performed many tasks that are familiar to modern-day political consultants, such as fundraising and campaign strategy. However, it would be inaccurate and perhaps disingenuous to claim that Martin Van Buren and Mark Hanna are the forefathers of political consulting, since it ignores a critical difference between political consultants and nineteenth century party bosses. Their personal motives notwithstanding, neither Van Buren nor Hanna considered campaign advising to be a vocation. The campaign was always a means to an end, not the defining moment. Consultants, on the other hand, are transfixed by the campaign and, even though a growing number remain in close contact with clients after the election, their post-electoral activities are

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