What I've Learned: Doug Bailey

A political guru on the problem with campaign consultants, why people are getting fed up with both parties, and why big changes are on the way

By: Ken Adelman

National editor Ken Adelman (adelmank@aol.com) has been conducting What I’ve Learned interviews since 1988.

Many voters consider both parties too dominated by their base,” Douglas Bailey says. “To them, Republicans come off as crazy and Democrats as empty. Lots of people don’t much like either one.”

Bailey—a pioneer in political consulting—believes our election process pushes candidates to extremes to win the nomination, making people in the middle feel unrepresented.

“If a third party doesn’t emerge from the next presidential primaries, people will create it.

“Candidates will begin to raise most of their money in small amounts over the Internet. You’re seeing more of this in 2006; you’ll see lots more in 2008. Politics will move back toward the middle.”

Bailey, 72, was born in Cleveland, where his father ran a manufacturing company. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, Bailey went on for master’s and doctorate degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

He helped create the field of political consulting in 1968 when he and John Deardourff founded Bailey, Deardourff & Associates. Among the campaigns they worked on were Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential race against Jimmy Carter; Senate campaigns of Ed Brooke, John Chafee, and Richard Lugar; and gubernatorial races of Thomas Kean, Lamar Alexander, and Richard Thornburgh.

After the firm closed in 1987, Bailey partnered with Roger Craver to establish the Hotline, a daily political briefing, now online. In 1996, it was sold to National Journal; Bailey continues as an adviser.

During the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, he launched organizations to encourage online dialogue between candidates and the public, including Rolling Cyber Debate, Freedom Channel, and Youth-e-Vote. In 2002, he and Mike McCurry—White House press secretary under Bill Clinton—launched the nonprofit Freedom’s Answer to spur voter turnout by mobilizing high-school students.

Recently, with Republican Jim Jonas and Democrats Hamilton Jordan, Gerald Rafshoon, and Roger Craver, Bailey founded the Unity08 movement to put a unity ticket—one Republican and one Democrat—on the 2008 presidential ballot. The first online virtual convention would nominate the candidates in spring 2008, with every registered voter qualified to sign up and be a voting delegate.

Bailey lives in Arlington. His wife, Pat, was a member of the Federal Trade Commission and a lawyer in private practice before retiring. They have two children: Ed co-owns the DC gay bar Halo and is a sought-after disc jockey; Kate Bailey Roeser runs a Boston event-planning company.

In the Atlantic Media common room, outside the Hotline offices, we talked about what Bailey has learned.

What wins elections?

That has changed over 40 years. When I started, winning elections meant getting votes in the middle. Elections were fights over your ability to get the swing voter. But the trick since then has become getting more of your base to turn out on Election Day.

That’s a good way to win elections but a dreadful way to govern. Today’s campaigns most easily turn out their base by attacking the other side. Candidates focus almost exclusively on special issues that fire up their people and turn off the rest of voters.

What’s caused that change?

Television is the answer to almost any question on changes in politics. Before, we had three networks competing for the most support. Their programming moved toward the middle. Now with hundreds of channels, TV programming appeals to niches. So TV is also now geared toward the extremes.

Granted, a dozen or so Democratic governors still preside in “red” states, and a similar number of Republicans in “blue”—so there’s still some swing vote out there. Nonetheless, today’s consultants advise candidates that the easiest way to win is through polarization.

Who goes into politics?

Many people who entered politics 20 or 30 years ago did so for idealistic reasons. They really wanted good government. Fewer people today are motivated by simple public service. More seek to spread their ideology—pro-life, pro-choice, pro-gun control, whatever.

Many people in the middle are turned off by our political process. They won’t even consider public service.

Campaigns now overrely on consultants. Candidates listen too much to consultants, because they’re driven by winning and money, without caring all that much about views on issues apart from their own appeal. Oh, they’ll use ideology and wedge issues, because consultants say they can win that way, but they don’t seem to care that much.

Plus there are too many consultants. When John Deardourff and I started, our main contact was the candidate. Maybe there’d be a pollster or two, perhaps a media consultant. But usually we filled those roles. That was it—a few of us interacting with the candidate.

Then along came direct-mail consultants. Then fundraising consultants. Then Web-site consultants. Now any major campaign has so many consultants that it’s either a disastrous shift of focus every day or it’s governed by committee, which results in mush.

That’s a huge problem, as the 2004 John Kerry campaign showed. His lead consultant, Bob Shrum, didn’t give very good advice, and Kerry listened too much.

Whoever’s in charge of television needs to get close to and really understand the candidate so that’s what viewers will see. TV’s greatest value is parting the curtains—letting the candidate be seen as he is. Often consultants can’t get close to the candidate, so they substitute polling information for the candidate’s judgment.

In my early years, we’d plop the candidate in the middle of a group of randomly chosen voters. We’d film more than an hour of that conversation. Then we’d pull out the 30-second interchange that reflected personality and priorities.

You never see that today. Consultants don’t trust candidates to say the words their pollsters conclude need to be said. So the message is delivered by the candidate from a TelePrompTer or by a voice-over on a political ad.

Why do candidates need consul-tants?

Consultants bring technical skills. How to put together a TV spot. Buy ad time. Do a reliable poll. Acquire a direct-mail list for fundraising. Set up a Web site. All are tasks a modern campaign needs.

Is it true that consultants get 15 percent of the cost of campaign ads?

Few get 15 percent any longer. That’s standard commission for buying a commercial ad, but almost all campaigns cut that down. Nevertheless, if you’re Bob Shrum and earn just 8-percent commissions on $100-million-plus advertising, you’re still making lots of money.

So, yes, big consultants on big campaigns make big money.

Thirty years ago, for the Ford presidential campaign, our firm billed a total of $75,000. Granted, we got in during the last ten weeks. But nowadays it’s inconceivable to do a presidential campaign for a flat fee under $50,000 a month.

Talk about the importance of money to winning an election.

It’s a lot but not everything. Your candidate doesn’t have to match the other guy. You can be outspent ten to one—as long as you have enough money to communicate your case.

With several million dollars, you can compete in a statewide Senate race against some billionaire spending $40 million or $50 million of his own bucks—as long as you can buy enough advertising so people get to know who you are.

Another point: Incumbents now stash money from past campaigns to scare off the opposition in coming campaigns. They raise more money—even millions more—to have some left over. It sits there, scaring off anyone tempted to run against them.

All this talk about Washington lobbying—about Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff, as awful as they are—isn’t as bad as incumbents able to create a war chest to deter anybody from running against them.

Look at 2004. Four hundred and one House incumbents ran. Of those, 396 won. Those 401 spent on average more than $1 million for a House race, with 250 outspending opponents better than ten to one. Moreover, most of the congressional incumbents’ money is raised not just outside their districts but outside their states. Most comes through dealings and events involving Washington lobbyists.

Just who do the incumbents represent? If the congresswoman is from, say, the 14th District of New York, those are the people who elected her to represent them. Does somebody from the 14th District have ready access to her? No. But someone in Washington who’s given her money does.

I’d support requiring at least half of all campaign contributions to come from within the candidate’s district. That’s where most of a challenger’s money comes from, since that’s the only place he can get it.

What about campaign finance reform?

The McCain-Feingold reform didn’t do anything. It formally kept big money out of political campaigns, but the big money went to “527” attack groups instead.

Since McCain-Feingold became law, more candidates have waived federal matching funds in order to get more money in their campaigns. In 2008, I’d expect that both presidential candidates will waive federal funding, since they can get more outside that system—which means this reform law will have no impact.

One reform that appeals to me is Howard Baker’s position: Nobody who’s not eligible to vote for a candidate should be allowed to give a contribution to that candidate. That would cut down lobbyists’ power.

A lot of this will change by the next presidential contest. In our increasingly Web-dominated world, candidates will have to provide full disclosure of all contributions and expenditures within 48 hours. That way, opponents and the media can track them. The system will no longer depend on the Federal Election Commission. That’s good, since the FEC never does anything.

Candidates will adopt reform because today’s political world, in both parties, is so negative. Whatever candidate steps forward with new ways—more transparent and authentic—will benefit.

I expect that between the 2006 campaign and that of 2008 will be a period of extraordinary political change—foremost, the emergence of a third party.

Internet politicking will dominate. Sure, TV advertising will still be powerful, but it’s becoming less so for many reasons—too many channels, less viewing, less believability to everything on television, more use of TiVo, which cuts out ads. And now there’s video on demand.

If I want to hear a candidate speak on some particular issue, I’ll do a Web search to hear him speak on that topic. If he’s talking about something else or merely attacks his opponent, that’s not what I’ll get when I do the search. This will infuse some responsibility into the political system. It’ll force candidates to become more direct and talk about real issues.

There’ll be a new capacity for cyber debates. We’ll be able to watch both candidates address the same issue, back to back—even if they never get in the same room together during the campaign.

There will be more interactivity between candidates and voters. Watch for candidates to issue daily video Weblogs—a report at the end of the day of whom they met with and what went on.

Campaigns will have tighter organization and instant feedback. They’ll recruit, nurture, organize, direct, and facilitate on-line. The political organization will carry messages door to door, block by block, through volunteers who report back on the Web.

Created around each campaign will be an online community that engages people in politics in areas they care about. They’ll be taking their country back.

Into that mix will come, in 2008, a third party in the middle. Of all the things in Washington, what most upsets the public is the perception of constant bickering. These politicians get nothing done. They have virtually no time to meet in a collegial effort to reach rational conclusions. That calls out for a unity ticket.

Your big lessons of politics?

That the American experiment has thrived not because of some prescription in the Constitution but because we’ve found a way for each generation to redefine freedom for its own times.

I fear this isn’t happening with young people now. They’re not getting into the political system to update it with their own practices and priorities. I want them to participate more in the political system. If that means forming a new party, so be it.

Our system needs a jolt. This must come from people who haven’t yet participated, which means mostly younger people. The brightest in our society have chosen to stay clear of politics.

Our society never asked the question “How can television best serve our democracy?” Those of us in politics answered that television serves by electing our candidates. But that’s not completely true.

Let’s not make this mistake with the new technologies. Going online, podcasts—these present us with new opportunities for public involvement: interactivity, transparency, responsibility, for new leaders to enter the system by raising money and support in new ways.

Big lessons of life?

I’ve learned that the most valuable public servants are those whose minds remain open to new ideas. They have their beliefs, but they remain open.

Don’t be afraid to change, to admit mistakes, to adjust. Otherwise you won’t survive—both in politics and the real world.