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Politics' Hired Guns

April Schiff
Signing on: “We guide the candidate through the entire process,” says political consultant April Schiff, who has worked for some high-profile candidates, including U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez. One Florida trend Schiff notes: “The biggest surge in voter registration is (voters) with no party affiliation.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The political consultant’s goal today is the same as it was in 1986 when Tom Nolan got in the game: Identify the voters likely to vote your way and induce them to go to the polls on election day.

But how the game has changed, both for the several dozen people in Florida like Nolan who make a living as political consultants — and for the voters they target.

In 1986, when Nolan needed information on voters, he went to places like the Hardee County Supervisor of Elections office and combed through long boxes filled with index cards that contained data on voters — name, age, gender, address and party affiliation.

Nolan, who lives in Bradenton, was among the first consultants in Florida to use that data to create targeted direct-mail fliers sent directly to voters’ homes. “We could target voters based off their vote history, how they performed, mapped with other things, age demographics, for instance.”

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Today, technology has made the index card-direct-mail strategy seem quaint. When Nolan needs voter registration information for Hardee County these days, he calls the Supervisor of Elections office in Wauchula, which sends him a CD with the information. Nolan then assembles highly detailed voter profiles by cross-referencing the county’s voter list with information from other databases containing consumer information — magazine subscription lists, for example, or rosters of members of interest groups or clubs.

Knowing that a voter is pro-life, for example, or that she cares about the environment, or that she makes more than $100,000, or that she rents rather than owns a home enables Nolan and other consultants to zero in on those most likely to support their candidate.

“These days, if you want to look now at female joggers, you can cross-reference the databases to come up with female joggers who have high-frequency voting records,” says Nolan.

Political professionals in both parties call it microtargeting, and they’re using it to fine-tune everything from direct mail appeals to fund-raising pitches and even door-to-door canvassing. Republicans pioneered the tactic in 2004, when they unleashed the Voter Vault, a massive database containing hundreds of demographic details about millions of voters, and used it in 18 states to try to tip the balance in favor of George W. Bush. Both parties in Florida now maintain extensive statewide databases on voters.

Tom Nolan with clients
“We could target voters based off their vote history, how they performed, mapped with other things, age demographics, for instance,” says Tom Nolan. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
How precisely can the consultants target voters? “I wouldn’t go so far to say that I know what kind of car you drive, but we absolutely know what your religious affiliations are, the clubs that you belong to. Those kinds of records are indicators of which way you’ll vote,” explains April Schiff, a Republican campaign consultant in Tampa who has worked for U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, the Republican Party of Florida and numerous state and local officials.

The political operatives continue mining data all the way through election day. Early voting provides a two-week window during which campaigns track who’s voted — Schiff says it’s possible to get daily updates. If she’s done her work right, she can guess with some certainty how her candidate is doing. “If you know who’s voted, you can pull them off mailing lists, pull them off your phone lists — and if you have identified your supporters, you know how many votes you’ve gotten.”

But if it sounds like the politicos have mastered the art of influencing hearts and minds, think again. Despite being able to muster an ever-larger arsenal of intelligence about voters, the consultants say it’s actually becoming harder to reach people. Direct mail pieces, which cost on average 50 cents a pop, all too often end up unread in the garbage can. A 30-second TV ad can be TiVo’d into oblivion. And thanks to caller ID, automated phone calls known as “robocalls” — which at 3 to 5 cents a call are the cheapest form of political communication — often go unanswered.

All those firewalls mean the consultants have had to increase the volume and frequency of their candidates’ messages. John Sowinski, an Orlando-based Republican political consultant who engineers initiative campaigns, says he used to purchase about 800 “gross ratings points” for a political advertisement to make an impact on voters — that measure of ad volume indicates that an average viewer sees a commercial eight times. Today, because consumers delay or avoid seeing ads by using TiVo and other video-recording technology, Sowinski has to buy 1,200 to 1,400 gross ratings points before tracking polls indicate that voters have seen an ad often enough to influence their opinions.

Those gross ratings points translate into big bills for the campaigns. Sowinski estimates that in the 1990s it cost less than $1 million to run one effective ad in Florida. Today, running that same ad statewide would cost $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, the internet has also emerged as a wild card on the political playing field — one over which the professional consultants have limited control. “Everyone can now become a director or producer, a filmmaker — and the more provocative, the better the opportunity they have to be seen,” says Adam Goodman, a GOP media strategist who has created campaign commercials for Rudy Giuliani and much of the Florida Legislature.

This year’s presidential candidates — particularly two former candidates — know the YouTube phenomenon well. As hired guns like Goodman strategized over how to get Americans to watch 30-second TV ads, more than 300,000 internet users went to YouTube to watch a 5-minute video titled “The Real Romney?” that features footage of a 1994 debate between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in which Romney expressed markedly different positions on abortion and gays from the ones he was supporting during his campaign. The video was posted anonymously by YouTube user “SoThisIsWashington.” Another anonymous YouTube video, set to the music “I Feel Pretty,” shows former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards primping before a television interview. It has gotten more than 1 million hits.

Campaigns, of course, have adopted their own internet strategies to raise money, mobilize supporters and wage attacks. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which provides support for Republican House candidates across the country, has created a website called “The Real Tim Mahoney.” There, internet users are invited to watch videos, make a campaign contribution, read a blog and submit their e-mail address and “keep and eye on” the first-term lawmaker elected to represent Florida’s 16th congressional district in 2006. The NRCC has similar pages targeting 27 other freshmen Democrats.

» “We’re doing just as much production for clients who want to put things up on the internet. I think that’s where the field is starting to move.”
— political consultant Adam Goodman
Goodman says the new medium has turned his job into a 24/7 game. “We’re doing just as much production for clients who want to put things up on the internet — and those go up quickly as opposed to the classic 30-second commercial on TV. I think that’s where the field is starting to move.”

While the digital revolution hasn’t eliminated the need for old-fashioned, shoe-leather campaigning, strategists are even using high-tech techniques to micro-tune candidates’ door-to-door visits. Nolan says he uses GIS-mapping techniques in conjunction with voter lists to come up with a detailed walking script that spells out which houses to approach, which to avoid — and how to get there.

“We can tell you — ‘Park your car here and walk 200 feet to the first house. When you leave, turn right, go 150 feet to this address.’ ”

One inevitable result of all this slicing and dicing of the electorate is that there’s little spillover onto those who don’t already participate. The consultants say it’s a waste of time time trying to reach those who aren’t already involved — it’s just a fact of life that some citizens matter to politicians and causes and others don’t.

“When you’re out walking, if the household doesn’t have people who vote in it, then you don’t stop there. That’s a cruel fact of life in politics — the people who don’t vote don’t count,” Nolan says.

» On the following pages: Profiles of political consultants. Use page links below.

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

John Sowinski
Consensus Communications
Founding partner/Orlando

John Sowinski
John Sowinski [Photo: Gregg Matthews]
Political leaning: Republican

Media labels: The Initiative Whiz Kid, the Godfather of Initiatives.

Division of labor: Sowinski handles statewide referendum campaigns while partner Tre’ Evers, president and co-founder of Consensus, provides consulting advice to candidates and does lobbying. Roy Reid focuses on corporate communications.

Best part: “The thing I love is the polling, the research groups.”

Consulting vs. legislative: “I get to have my fun and not have to go somewhere two months a year to live in the fishbowl. I love the initiative stuff because I get to affect public policy — I get to do that now, from the outside, and make a living doing it.”

Sowinski, 44, has championed some of the state’s most controversial initiatives. His first big campaign was in 1988. After reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Michigan Gov. James Blanchard’s plan to create a prepaid college program caught his eye, Sowinski convinced then-Florida Rep. Rich Crotty to sponsor a similar bill in Florida. The bill passed and then-Gov. Bob Martinez signed it into law and enrolled his own twin grandsons in the program.

In 1992, Winter Park financier Phil Handy tapped Sowinski to manage the “Eight is Enough” term limits campaign. “That was a blast.” Sowinski used that election day as a segue to his next issue, stationing teams of volunteers to gather signatures for a constitutional amendment to ban the use of gill nets in Florida waters. The net ban, as it was called, was approved by voter referendum in November 1994, the same year he ran a successful “no casinos” campaign.

In 1995, Sowinski formed Consensus Communications. Subsequent successful initiatives included the 1996 campaign against a proposed tax of Florida sugar; the 2000 campaign in support of high-speed rail; and the 2002 Smoke Free Workplace initiative. This year, Sowinski scored again with Floridians for Smarter Growth, a campaign organized by the Florida Chamber of Commerce to counter the Hometown Democracy initiative.

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

April Schiff
Strategic Solutions of Florida
President/Tampa

Political leaning: Republican

April Schiff
April Schiff: “You have to earn enough money in six months to live on for two years.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Political route: Schiff formed the firm with Ann Voss, who is now retired, in 2000 after volunteering on a few local races. “It gets in your blood. It’s sort of addictive.”

Boys club: Schiff says her male counterparts initially thought they were just a couple of “bored housewives.” Eight years later, she says “I don’t think any of them are saying that anymore.”

How to: Schiff provides each client with a big binder that includes the candidates’ walk plan, fund-raising plan, mail plan, media plan and get-out-the-vote, or GOTV, plan. “We guide the candidate through the entire process and start early with a very detailed plan so they can understand what the goals are.”

The money: If you’re good at budgeting, you can make a good living as a political consultant. “You have to earn enough money in six months to live on for two years.”

Registration trends: “The biggest surge in voter registration is (voters) with no party affiliation. NPAs are going up faster than Republicans and Democrats. I think that’s somewhat telling about our system.”

Clients: U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez; former Gov. Jeb Bush; former state Sen. Jim Sebesta; state Rep. Faye Culp; former state Reps. Rob Wallace and Sandy Murman; Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober; Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner; several members of the Hillsborough County Commission and the Tampa City Council.

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

Adam Goodman

Adam Goodman
Adam Goodman [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
The Victory Group
President/Tampa

Political leaning: Republican

Family influences: Goodman’s father, Robert, launched an advertising agency in Baltimore in the late 1950s and helped pioneer the field of political advertising. Robert Goodman first did campaign work for then-Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, then went on to run successful gubernatorial campaigns in several states where Republicans hadn’t been elected in generations. “I was growing up around this,” says Adam Goodman, “so our discussions around the dining room table weren’t just about the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Colts.”

First assignment: At age 13. “I was working with a film crew where we went and filmed for a week in West Virginia for Gov. Arch Moore, who was later indicted for all sorts of nefarious offenses.”

Florida start: In 1992, the Republican Party brought Goodman to Florida to work on all targeted state Senate races. He did 10 races that year and 21 campaigns over two election cycles. His clients included Charlie Crist, Ander Crenshaw, Ginny Brown-Waite, Charles Bronson and Curt Kiser. “A lot of these people were in the beginnings of very promising careers, and we were there at the front end of it.” Two years later, his father was getting out of the business, and Goodman had to decide where to base his shop. “At this point, it’s bitter cold in Washington. I said we could go to Wisconsin — we’d done a lot of work for Tommy Thompson, who was looking at running for president of the United States — or we could go even closer to the Washington orbit, or we can get warm and be part of a very exciting trend of Republican successes in Florida.”

Hot contest: This year, Goodman is doing media work for state Rep. Gayle Harrell, one of three Republicans attempting to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, who won the seat in 2006 after a scandal involving congressional pages brought down Palm Beach Republican Rep. Mark Foley.

Credits: More than four dozen winning media campaigns for Florida’s Senate and House; St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker; Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty; major statewide candidate and initiatives wins; public campaigns for new airports, new schools and tax relief; corporate imaging and crisis communications; congressional wins from Florida to Oregon; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 1997 re-election campaign and his 2002 U.S. Senate bid.

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

Bruce Barcelo
Barcelo & Co.
Bruce Barcelo
Bruce Barcelo [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]
Principal/Jacksonville

Political leaning: Republican

Specialty: Public opinion research and message design for referendums and international consulting .

Example: In 2006, Barcelo was hired by the “Neighbors Protecting Neighbors Committee,” which was fighting a charter amendment intended to get the U.S. Department of Defense to re-establish a Navy jet base at Cecil Field. The plan would have required the city to eject business owners from the Cecil Commerce Center at the former Cecil Field and return it to the U.S. Department of Defense. “What we were able to show in our early polling was that even though folks here love the Navy, as a pure business proposition, they didn’t think giving land back to the Navy was a smart thing to do. We told our clients that the referendum was going to fail, and they needed to stick to a disciplined message strategy, and the referendum failed 60% to 40%.”

Property taxes: Barcelo predicts that the property tax issue will continue to be a hot potato, despite the passage of Amendment 1, which increased the homestead exemption and made the “Save Our Homes” tax break portable. Barcelo says the tax break will radically change local governments’ funding and strap their ability to provide services. “We’re going to have to deal with the aftermath — government service cuts, probably recriminations, and a lot of finger pointing.”

Overseas: Barcelo spends much of his time abroad doing “Democracy building” in countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Afghanistan and Ukraine. “It’s very fulfilling to watch people in a post-totalitarian culture sort through public policy choices and sort through political conversations.”

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

Jim Kitchens
Jim Kitchens: “You could say I’m somewhat competitive. I enjoy the campaign game.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Jim Kitchens
The Kitchens Group
Founder/Maitland

Political leaning: Democrat

Clients: More than 40 members of Congress, Nature Conservancy, Lowe’s, Walt Disney World.

Perceptions: “I’m basically a behavioral scientist. I’m an attitude change specialist. How do you move people around? I was always fascinated about how we create these mass perceptions.”

Challenge: “I’ve always said one of our problems is we have no licensing. Anyone can hang their shingle out and say they’re a political consultant.”

Big break: When Kitchens launched his political polling career more than 25 years ago, he had to convince members of Congress that polling was a good idea. The Atlanta native says he got his big break in 1980 while living in Texas. The National Conservative Political Action Committee, an independent group, had targeted five U.S. senators and 14 U.S. House members for defeat, including Rep. Jim Wright, who was House Majority Leader. At a meeting with Wright, Kitchens warned him that the conservative group was “going to say you’re pro-abortion — you kill babies — you gave away the Panama Canal.” Wright didn’t believe him, saying “This is Fort Worth Texas, and we just don’t do things like that here,” Kitchens recalls.

The following day, Wright asked Kitchens to return to his office and handed the young political strategist a flier with a photograph of a trash can full of dead babies and the words “Jim Wright murdered these babies.” “He said, ‘Perhaps you know more than I think you know.’ ” Kitchens ended up running Wright’s strategy team. At Wright’s request he also flew to Washington and explained to other members of the Democratic Caucus how to respond if they were targeted by groups like NCPAC. “When I left, I had 13 members of the House as clients.”

At one point, Kitchens was on the campaign payroll of 42 House lawmakers. But the pollster, who moved his business to Florida in 1985, says he has migrated more toward public issues and corporate work as of late. Congressional redistricting, he says, has resulted in legislative districts that are no longer competitive. “In Florida, we’re sitting here with 27 congressional districts and only two or three are competitive.”

POLITICAL CONSULTANT

Dave Beattie
Hamilton Campaigns
President/Fernandina Beach

Dave Beattie
Adam Goodman [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]
Political leaning: Democrat

Education: Master’s degree in political science from the University of Florida; bachelor’s degree in political communications from the George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

The firm: Named after veteran Democratic pollster Bill Hamilton, who founded the firm in 1964. Beattie became president when Hamilton died in 2000 at age 61.

Political prodigy: Beattie was elected to the school board in Vestal in upstate New York while a high school junior. He says he considered himself a Republican back then.

Revenue: $2.5 million to $3 million in even-numbered years when campaigns are in high swing.

National scope: The research and strategy firm, which has done work in 36 states since 2000, conducts about one-third of its work in Florida.

2006 wins: U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney; Florida CFO Alex Sink; U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson; state Sen. Jeremy Ring; state Sen. Ted Deutch; Delaware Sen. Tom Carper; Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter; Texas state Rep. Donna Howard; Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

Key to Florida: Whoever wins the Tampa Bay media market will win the presidency, predicts Beattie, who says the swing market is “very reflective” of the nation as a whole because of its diversity and political leanings. “With 25% of the electorate, it’s the biggest media market in the state — bigger than Miami. The state of Colorado is about the same size as the Tampa media market.”