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Trump wants to run his campaign outside the GOP establishment. Here's why that hurts him.

- August 11, 2015

Donald Trump answers a question at the Republican presidential debate Thursday in Cleveland. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Donald Trump’s controversial comments about Fox News’s Megyn Kelly have been criticized  by his Republican opponents. But there’s another, more basic threat to the sustainability of his campaign: the quality of his campaign organization and its consultants. By my calculations, Donald Trump has paid nine consultants for their services. Few are of the type best suited to help their client win a presidential primary race.
What kind of political consultants hint that the candidate might succeed?
Trump has spent less than $400,000 so far on consulting firms to help his bid for the nomination, and only 3 percent of that sum has gone to consultants who had worked for the Republican National Committee. That’s a problem. Not all political consultants are of high enough caliber to guide a candidate to a presidential primary win. And a good indication of that caliber is their relationship to political party committees.
Consider the $30,000 Trump paid to a communications consulting firm named Drake Ventures out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that is registered to Roger Stone, who recently was either fired from or quit the Trump campaign. Stone has had a long career in Republican politics going back to the Nixon era — but neither he nor Drake Ventures have recently been under contract with the Republican National Committee.
Consider that, by contrast, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent nearly $3 million on consultants, with 82 percent paid to consultants who’ve also been paid by the Democratic National Committee. And by this time in his campaign in 2011, Mitt Romney had spent more than 40 percent of his consultant dollars on consultants with ties to the GOP establishment.
So far Trump is pursuing the opposite approach. His rhetoric rankles the GOP establishment. His campaign organization, both in its hired consultants and its inside staff and advisers, appears designed to be anti-establishment.
The party ties that bind
In my recent article in Presidential Studies Quarterly on the influence of consultants in the 2012 Republican primary campaign, I tracked candidates’ payments to consultants as reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Candidates who spent money on consultants who had recently been in the service of the Republican National Committee were more successful in the primaries than those who relied on consultants the RNC did not use. In earlier research in the Election Law Journal, I found that using a consultant who has recently worked with a national party committee is also effective in congressional primaries.
Do the consultants cause their candidates’ success? Not necessarily. Quality consultants might refrain from working for candidates they don’t expect to perform above expectations for fear it might harm their reputations and other professional relationships. The party’s consultants likely fear the damage of work for an unprofessional politician, like Trump, who risks burning their bridges to further profitable employment inside the Beltway.
Political consultants want a lot of good buzz around their candidates
How do political consultants get and sustain their employment in election campaigns? Some scholars argue that political consultants offer the expertise candidates and campaigns need to identify the voters they want to reach, craft a message and effectively communicate it. While that may be true, it overlooks the implications of important distinctions within the political consulting industry.
Most consultants are in their line of work because they love the game of politics, they want to advance the policy goals of their preferred party and its politicians, and they hope to make a profit. However, many political consultants struggle professionally and financially, and disappear from the scene quickly and quietly. A few tend to dominate their campaign niche. Candidates who employ well-regarded consultants, like criminal defendants who hire big-name attorneys, can signal to their opponents and political elites, such as journalists, donors, and party insiders, that they are viable candidates.
Herein lies the value of a consultant’s attachment to a political party. Candidates who want to show elites that they are serious and can sustain viable campaigns hire top consultants. In a volatile industry, who is at the top is hard to pin down and can change from year to year. The Democratic and Republican parties have been in business for decades, so work for them shows a consultant’s presumed quality, especially when the parties can have their pick of the large consultant litter. Unless he’s willing to self-finance his campaign, Trump will need to attract donors to fund the campaign apparatus necessary to winning a nomination. Hiring the party’s consultants is one route to that goal.
Should Trump fail to win the GOP nomination, his consultants won’t necessarily have been the cause. But his consultants suggest the problems facing his candidacy. Whether party consultants are unwilling to work with him or whether he is unwilling to hire them, their lack of involvement in his campaign suggests his own quality as a candidate who has never run for or won elected office and who takes an unorthodox (to put it mildly) approach to campaigning. His strategy is not likely to pay off.
Sean A. Cain is associate professor of political science at Loyola University in New Orleans.