WASHINGTON -- 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. (See the accompanying chart of top firms and slideshow of prominent consultants.)
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.
Most of the attention so far about the mechanics of politics in campaign 2012 has focused on the rocketing rise of free-spending, uncontrolled super PACs, which are now able to collect unlimited sums from corporations and unions as well as individuals and spend directly for or against candidates. The growth of and changes in the role of political consultants is less noted. But they arguably will have a greater influence on the tone and content -- as opposed to just the sheer decibel level -- of the 2012 race for the presidency, for Congress and for control of state and local governments nationwide.
With no purer nor baser motive than the old-fashioned desire to make a buck, consultants in 2012 are amplifying the negative environment, adapting the tools of community engagement to the new warfare, serving as the (barely) legal connective tissue between candidates and supposedly independent PACs and other entities, and schooling millionaires and billionaires in the arts of political combat without having to bother with the braking mechanism of political parties, candidates or candidates' families and friends.
"The whole industry is not only becoming bigger and more lucrative, but more negative," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. "The consultants go where the money is; the money is in outside spending; the outside spending is almost uniformly negative."
Success tends to beget success in political consulting. Yet even those consultants who lose lots of campaigns remain winners, as they almost inevitably sign up new clients.
In the days ahead, The Huffington Post will delve into this topic in detail, but the overall pattern is clear at a distance. The bigger the business grows, and the more money there is to be made, the less connected it is to the voters it is trying to influence.
And there is another irony: Political consulting is a business that thrives by marketing competing accusations about who is to blame for the fact that other businesses aren't thriving.
Nice work if you can get it.
As a class, consultants are no worse nor better than the folks in any other profit-seeking line of work, and the best of them do not pretend that they are doing charity or social uplift.
"People in every line of business will tell you you are supposed to try to 'make market,'" said Doc Sweitzer, a Democratic consultant who is the co-founder of The Campaign Group in Philadelphia and a longtime leader of the American Association of Political Consultants. "If you are a newspaper editor and you heard about a great scoop, would you say, 'Let some other paper get it?'
"A lot of consultants say, 'If I don't do it, somebody else will get the business. Why not me?'"
To top-shelf consultants, the advent of super PACs is a commercial boon. The consultants have the boardroom sales skills to impress wealthy, powerful business types. And the 50-50 split in the electorate puts a premium on sophisticated analysis and targeting.
"Nothing is simple anymore," said Sweitzer. In Wisconsin, his work for anti-Walker clients entailed micro-targeted messaging. "You need a surgical approach," he said, "and that means deep knowledge that only the experienced people can provide."
But super PACs have made a rough business rougher. The main reason, Sweitzer said, is disarmingly simple. Legally, these "independent" groups can't interview the candidate on camera or use more than stock footage and pictures of him or her. "You need the candidate on video if you are going to do a positive spot. PACs can't do that."
More generally, consultants do the work that the candidates don't want to touch.
Candidates, their families and their friends love to talk about positive themes, Sweitzer said, because they tend to believe in themselves and what they have to offer the electorate. They'd rather leave the grimmer view of humanity to the consultants.
"Consultants know their role," said Sweitzer, "which is that we'll do the dirty work."
And in 2012, there is more work than ever to do.
Jennifer Bendery, Aaron Bycoffe, Elise Foley and Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this report.