Who Really Won the Election? Campaign Consultants

Candidates come and candidates go but campaign consultants live on, no matter the outcome of the election, continuing to cash in even as they look for their next victims. And with the post-Citizens United explosion of money now available via super PACs and 501c4s (the "social welfare" groups that keep their deep-pocketed donors anonymous), the potential, ongoing profits are more enormous than ever.

For example, Bloomberg News recently reported, "More than five months after Newt Gingrich dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, the founder of the super-political action committee backing him was still drawing a check. In fact, almost half of the $480,000 Rebecca Burkett paid herself as founder of Winning Our Future came after the former House speaker quit the race."

... While the 2012 election is over, the financial windfall for political consultants and fundraisers spawned by the millions of dollars donated to super-PACs continues -- and often with little oversight.

Entrepreneurs who set up super-PACs wrote their own paychecks. The new groups sometimes moved as much money into the pockets of employees as they did into races. And some showed evidence of self-dealing.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch, "In 2012, the total spending of outside groups -- the super PACs and dark money nonprofits which spend money to influence elections, but do so separately from campaigns -- amounted to about $1.3 billion." As a result, a handful of consultants are making out like bandits.

About a third of that money, more than $482 million, "ultimately passed through just six media companies" -- ad production houses Mentzer Media and McCarthy Hennings Media, direct mail company Arena Communications, online advertising firm Targeted Victory, Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads Media LLC, and "a mysterious Democrat-aligned media group" called Waterfront Strategies.

Some of these companies used the money to produce ads, others to purchase the slots where the ads ultimately aired, others to send ad mailers. Industry experts tell CMD that media buyers typically take a 10 to 15 percent commission on ad buys, but consultants involved in ad production or mailers may be paid an even greater percentage.

... the largest outside spenders tended to rely on the same vendors. Many of these media firms often did work for the same candidate campaign accounts that the outside spending groups were supporting, allowing for potential collusion between campaigns and 'independent' groups that are required by law to keep their operations separate.

In many ways, Washington is still a small town and the coziness of these companies - many of them owned and operated by close associates of the parties and candidates -- approaches the incestuous. Mentzer Media, for example, worked closely with McCarthy Hennings. McCarthy Hennings and online ad agency Targeted Victory worked with Karl Rove's American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, both of which are affiliated with ad purchasing company Crossroads Media (which had its name nearly a decade before Rove started his groups). Several of them also worked for the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC.

This tangled web of connectivity and the money being made have angered many, including conservatives who believe Romney's defeat and other losses at the polls this year were in part due to consultants who placed profit over victory. Erick Erickson of RedState.com pointed a finger specifically at the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the capital. It's the location of several campaign consultancies, including the aforementioned Crossroads Media and Targeted Victory. Restore Our Future is there, too.

Erickson dramatically wrote, "Strip away the candidate and coalition and it is on the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza where the seeds of Mitt Romney's ruin and the RNC's get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed -- bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots...

Here the top party consultants waged war with conservative activists and here they waged war with the Democrats. On both fronts, they raked in millions along the way with a more fractured, minority party in their wake. And they show no signs of recognizing just how much a part of the problem they are.

Back in early June, The Huffington Post calculated that the top 150 consulting companies - "media, fundraising, digital/social, direct mail and others" - had already grossed $465.76 million in the 2011-12 election cycle. From that, they extrapolated "an eventual take for the consulting industry of as much as $3 billion if, as some expect, total spending on all levels of campaigns tops out at some $8 billion this time (compared with $6 billion in 2007-08 and $4 billion in 2003-4)."

PR Watch contributing writer Will Dooling concludes, "Groups like these may drive funds toward expenditures that maximize their personal commission, even if those expenditures do not make good strategic sense. This may explain the massive emphasis big-spending super PAC's place on radio and television advertising, rather than door to door campaigning and other get-out-the-vote efforts."

Fortunes are being made at the expense of retail campaigning and true representative democracy, and with the big money come endless possibilities for corruption and abuse. "These guys spent as much money in Virginia as we used to spend in America," Democratic consultant Tad Divine, an ex-Gore and Kerry staffer, told The Washington Post. "That is not an exaggeration. It is beyond anything we would have been able to comprehend."

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