How political consulting works—or doesn’t
by Molly Ball
This past April, the American Association of Political Consultants gathered for its annual conference, known as the Pollies, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. During breaks between sessions (“Buying Votes in a Presidential Election,” “Staying Out of Jail”), attendees donned swimsuits and mingled in the waves, discussing digital-advertising rates over mango margaritas.
These are boom times for political consultants—by one rough estimate, more than $6 billion will go to or through consulting firms during this year’s elections—and the scene at the conference was befitting of an industry awash in cash. Booths showcased the wares of campaign-literature printers, data-acquisition specialists, automated-phone-call vendors, online-fund-raising experts, and social-media-analytics firms. Whole companies exist just to manufacture the throwaway trinkets campaigns hand out, from stress balls with a candidate’s name on them to red-white-and-blue fingernail files.
But all was not well at the Pollies. A confab intended to be a sun-soaked junket was instead shadowed by the island’s debt crisis, the Zika virus, and a forecast of stormy weather throughout the week. It was almost too perfect a metaphor: Despite all the money pouring into political consulting, a palpable sense of unease looms over the profession. The consultants may be getting rich, but recent events suggest they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.