Consultants account for half of campaign spending, study finds

Federal political candidates, national parties and 527 groups paid nearly $1.8 billion to 600 professional consultants during the 2004 election cycle, two-thirds of which went to media consultants, according to a study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan watchdog Center for Public Integrity.

Federal political candidates, national parties and 527 groups paid nearly $1.8 billion to 600 professional consultants during the 2004 election cycle, two-thirds of which went to media consultants, according to a study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan watchdog Center for Public Integrity.

The total spending on consultants accounted for about half of all campaign expenditures, and the center’s study suggests it is largely responsible for the rising cost of political campaigns and, ultimately, the cozy relationships between candidates and special-interest donors.

The average cost of winning a House or Senate seat has risen by a factor of 11 over the past three decades to $1 million for a House seat and $7 million for a Senate seat, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“[Candidates] spend hours on the telephone; they become almost telemarketers having to raise all this money,” said Sandy Bergo, who managed the project for the Center. “And, of course, that ties them closer to the donors who give the most money or who bundle together the most money, or the lobbyist who helped them raise the money. That’s the underlying public interest.”

The six-month study, conducted with the backing of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, examined about one million expenditures made by 900 candidates in 471 presidential, House and Senate races. Also included were four unsuccessful presidential primary candidates who spent at least $20 million overall, the six major party committees and 90 nonprofit “527” groups, so-called for their part of the tax code.

Media consultants were paid about $1.2 billion, but much of that figure is used to book airtime for broadcast advertisements and production costs and is merely passed through the consultant, who usually charges roughly a 15 percent commission on the buys, according to interviews conducted by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports are not itemized to show how much goes to the consultants versus other costs.

Bergo said it can be reasonably concluded that about 85 percent of the media consultant spending ends up being devoted to airtime, production and other costs. Accounting for this, only about $180 million of the $1.2 billion would end up in the pockets of consultants, and the total spending on consultants in the 2004 cycle would drop to about $750 million.

The other big slice of the pie is direct-mail consultants, who took in nearly $300 million, about 17 percent of the $1.8 billion. But, similar to the media consultant statistics, not all of the money ends up with the consultants because of postage fees and other costs.

Polling, phone banks and fundraising each took about 3 percent. Internet services totaled less than 1 percent – a similar amount used on get-out-the-vote consulting. Some expenditures could not be defined, and others did not fit into a specific category.

Bergo said the Center for Public Integrity is not taking a stand or saying there is anything wrong with the “professionalization” of political campaigns, but merely trying to throw some light on something that is not widely known or understood right now.

The study suggests that candidates who can’t meet the increasing financial demands are shut out of the campaign process. Spending in the 2006 election cycle is up 12 percent over the first 18 months when compared to the 2004 cycle, according the FEC.

“It turns the legislative process into a continuing cycle of constant running for office,” said Wendell Rawls, the interim executive director of the Center.

The study also says there is an incentive for consultants to push for large buys that fall under their specialty in order to pad their own bottom lines. The center conducted interviews with consultants who said the practice likely occurs.

“The typical answer from the consultant who is still in the business is that, ‘I’m not motivated by it, but I believe other people might be,’ ” Bergo said.

The center has also created a free online database searchable by consultant, candidate, committee or group. Each expenditure is listed by date, amount, and purpose, as described in FEC reports.

The largest consultants for the 2004 cycle were President Bush’s and Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) media consultants, each pulling in more than $150 million. Bush and Kerry combined to spend about $400 million overall on consultants.

Five of the six candidates who spent the most on consulting were presidential candidates, with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) spending the most among Senate candidates at $15 million and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) totaling the most among House candidates at $3.7 million.