Morton Blackwell: Grassroots, not ad buys, are essential to GOP’s success

Tea Party Movement

While surfing Facebook yesterday, I came across an article by Morton Blackwell, founder of the Leadership Institute, that touched on a problem with the Republican Party; one isn’t often detected in focus groups and polls.

Since this election, political consultants have been brought on various television and talk radio shows to explain why Republicans have suffered at the ballot box. There are certainly issued-based causes that are often cited; however, another problem is the political consultant class itself.

Blackwell explains that consultants make a good chunk of money when their candidate runs an ad. For example, Blackwell notes that “for every $100,000 spent on broadcast media, the consultant pockets a cool $15,000 — plus his fees for creating new commercials.”

But the consultant doesn’t end there:

The consultant, now prosperous and enjoying a changed lifestyle, has ready access to and influence with some incumbent officeholders. He decides to branch out into lobbying, where his influence enables him to pull down some really fat fees from major corporations, trade associations, and even foreign governments which have major financial interests in the decisions of elected and appointed government officials.

While able to give his few early clients a great deal of personal time, the consultant quickly finds it impossible to give the same type of service to half a dozen candidates simultaneously.

By now, most of the consultant’s income does not come from election campaigns. But he continues to take some candidates as clients, partly to keep his valuable ties with incumbents and partly because there are in each election cycle some rich candidates and others able to raise big war chests. These war chests will be spent largely on campaign media, still a fine source of income for the consultant.

Not all successful consultants behave this way. But a great many do.

This growing problem with consultants has many bad effects:

  • The unnecessary losses of many good candidates each year
  • The looting of millions of dollars misspent on media
  • The suckering of many rich candidates who are falsely led by consultants to believe they can win
  • The increasing perception that campaigning is mostly mudslinging TV commercials
  • Worst of all, the general decline of citizen participation as activists and, often, even as voters in the political process

That last point is one I’ve frequently heard from Martin Avila, a founder and occasional contributor here at United Liberty, as a systemic problem with the GOP. While today’s consultants spend their client’s money on ads, they downplay the old-fashioned, though still important, grunt work that is often done by grassroots activists.

We may lament this fact, but Blackwell lays a path forward for grassroots organizers and activists who have been pushed out by the political consultant class:

In the years leading up to the 1980 election, conservative organizations ran massive political education and training efforts. Activists were prepared by the thousands. That grassroots infrastructure-building should be vigorously resumed.

If you contribute to a candidate, you have the right to demand that his or her campaign give a healthy budget to people-oriented programs: precinct organizations, youth efforts, etc. These activities build grassroots infrastructure like no others.

If you are a donor to a conservative organization, you should demand that a substantial portion of its budget be spent on increasing the number and the effectiveness of its activists. If a group fails to do this, give to other groups instead.

If you are a donor to a party organization, demand that it spends your money, in part, on a serious program of political education and training. There is hardly any area of political technology which cannot be mastered by a willing local activist.

The winner in a political contest is ultimately determined by the number and the effectiveness of the activists and leaders on the respective sides — not their TV commercials.

Many in the consultant class aren’t going to do this because they don’t see any money in it, there is not getting around that. However, there are already several groups in the Liberty Movement that have already begun to undertake the task of educating and training activists in ways to build effective outreach to under-valued voters, such as young people and minorities.

This sort of outreach may be looked down upon by consultants, but activists have a way of connecting with potential voters that are essential to running successful campaigns. But continuing to overlook the grassroots does a disservice to the candidates for whom consultants work.

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