Campaigning in a changing America
Social media and polarization make politics a different business than it used to be
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I recently sat down for a turkey club sandwich in Harrisburg, Pa., with Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas. His company, Eagle Consulting Group, has represented more than 800 campaigns and last year celebrated its 30th anniversary. Pennsylvania is often seen as a political bellwether for the rest of the country, and political consultants have a seat in the cockpit of the campaigns that make the headlines.
How did you get into the world of political consulting? I grew up working on campaigns, and I have not missed an Election Day since I was 10. My dad was a precinct committeeman. My mom was one of the nice people at the polls that helped you vote when you went to vote twice a year. My uncles were involved. That’s just kind of what I did. When I set out looking at colleges, I didn’t want to go to a school in the state because I grew up in Bucks County. I ended up going to D.C. to attend American University. And I took very few of their theory courses but took every course they had on campaigns and all that other stuff.
What did college teach you that you still use today? I was a political science major, but I had already worked on campaigns a lot, which was not true for your average 18-year-old. I soon discovered that not everybody knew exactly what they wanted to do with themselves, which I thought was odd because I knew what I wanted. I was either going to go into writing or in politics. I worked on the student newspaper, The Eagle, which is where I got the name for my company. What did college teach me about how to be a political consultant? Not a whole lot. Political consulting is like a guild. Don’t pay to go to graduate school to learn how to manage a campaign. Go work on one and get paid to learn how to do it.
What’s been one of the most memorable campaigns that you’ve worked on? My best known campaigns were the two Arlen Specter campaigns that I managed for Specter for Senator. The first one was in 2004, the other in 2010. The 2004 race was a big-time primary against then-Congressman Pat Toomey. That was a big ideological battle because Toomey’s whole reason for running was saying Specter had been too liberal for too long. But Specter’s ideology and outlook was a perfect match for the state as a whole, which is why he became our longest-serving senator and served five terms.
But he was not as conservative as the primary Republican electorate had become by the early 2000s. Our argument was that he was a senator and had delivered for the state. President George Bush endorsed us, the other Republican senator at the time, Rick Santorum, endorsed us.
How have campaigns changed since you started? Things are much more expensive now, even accounting for inflation. There’s also a lot more coverage of the ins and outs of campaigns now with online news sites like Politico. If you watch the national cable networks, most of them have huge chunks of their coverage every day focused on politics. To me, there’s also a disturbing trend where there’s too much emphasis on political campaigns as entertainment, which they should not be. Finally, the pace moves faster. Back when I started, you barely had one computer and no social media. So the news cycle was a day or two days. Now with everything moving so fast, you have three or four news cycles daily. Now you have to be on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, in addition to being in the real world.
Back in the day, there was something called The Hotline, which is an online compendium of political news, almost all campaign news. I couldn’t afford the daily version, but they offered a weekly version. So every Friday, my fax machine would ring, and I would comb 16 pages of that week’s campaign news. Well, that took 15 minutes. Now, you gotta be on Twitter constantly where there’s just so much more information coming at you from all sides.
Have you noticed changes among Republican voters in Pennsylvania? Republican voters have gotten more conservative, Democratic voters have gotten more liberal. There are fewer pro-choice Republicans, fewer pro-life Democrats, fewer anti–Second Amendment Republicans, fewer pro–Second Amendment Democrats. People are moving more to the edges and [within those edge groups] becoming more ideologically similar to each other.
So does a moderate candidate have a strong chance of winning anything? You have to match up to what your district is. So if you’re running statewide, your statewide Republicans are here in central Pennsylvania. If you’re running in western Pennsylvania district for Congress, those Republicans are going to be more conservative than Republicans as a whole. If you’re in the Philadelphia suburbs, they’re gonna be more moderate than Republicans as a whole. It depends on where you are in the state, which is not unique to Pennsylvania or to the parties.
How does abortion function as a campaign issue? A lot of times our issues here end up becoming Kabuki dances. You can kind of predict at the beginning what is going to happen because the Republican-controlled General Assembly is more conservative than the Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
The state adjudicated politically the issue of abortion very early in with some 1990s court decisions and the Abortion Control Act. It passed the state Senate, won control by Republicans, won by Democrats, got signed by a conservative pro-life Democratic governor. That would never happen today.
What are some other litmus test issues? The Second Amendment is another divider. Democrats see that as a violence issue when Republicans see it as a freedom/family time/recreation type issue. Most of that difference is because the Democratic base is in cities, where there is more gun violence, and the Republican base is not in cities, where there is markedly less violence. And the conservatives will say, if you restrict my guns, the only people that will have guns are the criminals, because they’re already not following the law. But Democrats would say, oh, there’s too much gun violence, we need fewer guns on the street. And people would say, well, a criminal is not going to stop just because something’s illegal. They already don’t care about the law. But more conservative Republicans don’t live in a world where their cousin’s next-door neighbor got shot in a drive-by. There are two different worlds between the two tribes these days.
What effects would you say the Trump campaigns and presidency had on polarization? I think it increased it. I think if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, it still would have increased. It’s just where our trajectory is. Let’s admit it, Trump is an outlier on a lot of things. ... So some of that is you just can’t deal with it because it’s so far out of the mainstream. If Hillary Clinton had, unfortunately, become president, she would have had the same level of polarization.
The people who get rewarded in politics are further to the left or to the right within their tribe. The other thing is that more people have sorted themselves by where they live. So it’s harder to draw competitive state Senate, state House, or congressional districts. A serving Congress member doesn’t have to worry about dealing with Democrats because they’re just trying to get to the side of the Republican primary in the spring and the general election is an afterthought. Vice versa, a Democrat in a city where registration is 80 percent in a Democrat district doesn’t have to care what a Republican thinks, because there’s so few of them that their most important election is the primary.
The U.S. Senate race between television personality Mehmet Oz and hedge fund CEO David McCormick came very close in the primaries. What surprised you? McCormick and Oz were the richest candidates, and both had really good name ID. Oz turned out to be a very comfortable campaigner, obviously a very intelligent guy. I’m sure that David McCormick will go to bed many nights over the next couple of years wondering why he couldn’t have found an additional 1,000 votes somewhere. That margin was so close and that kind of stuff can drive you crazy. Hopefully, he’s come to peace with that. But both those guys pummeled each other and spent a lot of money publicizing their own record. The 2016 general election between Katie McGinty and Pat Toomey set a $164 million record for most expensive race, and we already blew through that just in the primary.
What makes all the politics worth it for you? There are certainly easier ways to make more money, and being a consultant is a tough life. It’s very cyclical, so you don’t make any money in December or January, so you have to pool resources. It’s very competitive unlike any other business. But when I was 10, my uncle ran for state representative, and as part of the campaign, we saved a historic house in Bucks County called Bolton Mansion, which had been one of the original homes of William Penn. That’s when I thought, “Boy, campaigns are kind of interesting and they can accomplish things even beyond winning or losing the race.”
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