Voters in Wisconsin go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to oust controversial Republican Gov. Scott Walker. One result is already clear. The recall election has been a bonanza for big-shot campaign consultants, who profit no matter who wins and whose ever-more precise and destructive skills make them the predator drones of today's American politics.
What began in February 2011 as a grassroots protest -- college professors held a key early rally -- metastasized into a record-setting (for Wisconsin) amount of money pouring in from outside groups. Much of that spending went to TV and radio stations and cable television in the Badger State's media markets. But consulting companies with close ties to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney; Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC; the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future; and Democratic senatorial and congressional candidates nationwide enjoyed huge paydays as well.
Since the beginning of 2012, the campaigns for Walker and his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, along with outside groups supporting one or the other candidate, have sent $30.4 million to consultants and advertisers.
In other words, what began in Wisconsin as an earnest and genuine reform movement ended up as just another nasty, industrialized example of what Americans hate about politics.
"It's an arms race," said John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity, "and it is only early June. Most of the big spending will come this fall."
A survey of federal spending reports by The Huffington Post, the most comprehensive of its kind this year, shows that the top 150 consulting companies -- media, fundraising, digital/social, direct mail and others -- have grossed $465.76 million so far in the 2011-12 electoral season, out of a total of $1.24 billion spent.
The totals reflect presidential campaigns, super PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission, party committees, House races and some data on Senate races.
These figures presage an eventual take for the consulting industry of as much as $3 billion if, as some expect, total spending on all levels of campaigns tops out at some $8 billion this time (compared with $6 billion in 2007-08 and $4 billion in 2003-4).
The top 15 payees in the consulting business this year have already received $214.47 million, even though they won't get the bulk of their payments -- 57 percent of the total, if the 2008 Obama campaign's spending is any guide -- until the last three months of the campaign. In the 2008 elections, the top 15 took in $400 million for the whole cycle. At their current pace, they will exceed that by at least $100 million.