July 3, 2020

Politics' Hired Guns

Today, Florida's professional political consultants know more about voters than the voters might like. But for all the tools at their disposal, it's still tough -- and more expensive -- to get a message out.

Amy Keller | 3/1/2008
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.


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.

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