WASHINGTON -- The political consulting industry knows how to do one thing very, very well. Give a consultant a few million dollars and he or she will test a message, blanket the airwaves with it, run a poll and show you it has moved the numbers. But nearly a decade after Howard Dean's campaign for president introduced the Internet to the political world, that reliance on traditional media remains the dominant strategy.
As The Huffington Post reported Tuesday, political consultants have already had their hands on $466 million this election cycle, with the largest portion of it flowing through them -- with the requisite commission skimmed, of course -- to pay for television ads.
The consultants face a problem, however: Fewer people are kicking back on the couch to watch live TV, a long-term trend that shows no signs of reversing itself. Even as record amounts of money are being shoveled at local network affiliates lucky enough to have media markets in swing states, a new generation of consultants has its eye on the post-television era.
The top 150 consultants have so far grossed just over $214 million this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The fourth biggest firm on the list is Bully Pulpit Interactive, a next-generation online consulting shop which runs the Obama campaign's online component. BPI has so far pulled in $18.5 million. (Disclosure: BPI advertises on huffingtonpost.com.)
Online consultants in the top 150 have combined to gross more than $49 million, according to a HuffPost analysis. That figure likely covers some spending that wasn't purely targeted at online activity, though the amount would be marginal. In fact, because many traditional firms have minor online components as well, the overall online spending among the top firms is likely much higher.
All told, online spending accounts for about one dollar out of of every four spent this cycle.
Take the case of Ted Cruz. The Tea Party Texan surprised the Lone State establishment last week by forcing a runoff with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, also a Republican, and the elite's preferred and very well financed candidate.
Cruz's campaign worked directly with Facebook to craft a strategy that focused heavily online, generating a following that far outpaced his rivals. (Facebook's bipartisan pair of political advisers make themselves available to candidates regardless of party. The Texas runoff for the U.S. Senate seat is at the end of July.)
"With people watching less television, there's a category of people you're not catching on TV, who don't have landlines [and so can't be reached by robocalls or pollsters]. But they are Internet users," said Taryn Rosenkranz, whose consulting firm New Blue Interactive works to build online support for progressive candidates. "The amount of minutes that people spend on the Internet has increased each year by double."
Across the political spectrum, but in particular for some Democrats and progressives, the Internet is increasingly seen as a high-growth potential strategy in the era of unlimited spending unleashed by five members of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.
Getting outspent many times over -- as happened to Democrats in Wisconsin's recall election -- means less if the money spent on TV ads doesn't translate into persuasion and votes. If, instead, voters connected by social networks can share information and encourage each other to vote, the playing field would be (at least slightly) leveled.
Because of Facebook's privacy policies, little academic work has been done to measure voting and political behavior on the social network. One study, however, has found promising results. For her dissertation at Georgia State University, Holly Teresi tested whether status updates from a friend could noticeably improve a person's knowledge of current electoral politics, or move people to head to the polls who might otherwise have sat at home.
The American people are notoriously stingy with their vote -- most other industrialized democracies have dramatically higher voting rates. Major get-out-the-vote campaigns in the U.S. are generally considered successful if they increase turnout by just a percentage point or two.
Teresi's findings blow the typical get-out-the-vote performance away. The study was completed in May 2012 and provided to HuffPost by Teresi, who now works for the New Organizing Institute. Data was collected from several different pools of voters that ranged between 100 and 700. Voters in her control group who were not given a message from a friend about voting on election day turned out at a 22 percent rate. Those who received messages encouraging them to vote and letting them know when election day was turned out at a rate of 30 percent. An eight point jump -- an increase of more than a third -- is the kind of thing that can turn an election.
Teresi also found that voters who were given some information about the election by a friend were better able to retain it. Meanwhile, Facebook ads, and even Facebook ads "liked" by a friend, had no discernible impact on voting patterns.
Absolutely blanketing voters with Facebook ads, however, has shown an ability to move the needle. The consulting firm Chong & Koster blasted some Florida voters with an average of five ads a day on Facebook, encouraging a no vote on a proposition that would have increased school class sizes. Voters exposed to the ads were more likely to vote no than a typical voter -- and more likely to oppose it than a typical Democrat.
Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, relied on Bully Pulpit Interactive to run a major campaign through Facebook, claiming to have reached 30 percent of all Emanuel voters online. (In 2010, 12 million people clicked "I Voted" on Facebook on election day, but the number is impossible to verify because the company won't allow researchers to compare its findings with voter files.)
In Ohio, The New Media Firm deeply engaged Facebook in the effort to beat back the anti-union measure SB 5. According to the firm, 50,000 people talked about the "We Are Ohio" campaign on Facebook, reaching 500,000 of their friends.
As long as TV can still move the numbers, however, the focus will remain there. But consultants interviewed for this story, whether rooted more in traditional or online campaigning, universally acknowledged that the focus is shifting.
"The Democratic Party's base wants it to go that way. There's a lot of push from big donors. There's a lot of Hollywood money [that] knows how much the media landscape is changing. Our big donors tend to be from those realms -- venture capital, social media -- that are a little more innovative," said one consultant, who requested anonymity because he did not wish to speak publicly about donors. "Even this election, I've noticed a difference in the last six to eight months in people's willingness to think about things differently."
Once they do start thinking differently, candidates find a wide range of new ways to reach voters. The consultant, for instance, described tracking users online and matching their IP and home address to the voter file to determine whether they're registered to vote, and if so, how. Doing so gives campaigns an unprecedented amount of information on a specific voter, allowing messages to be precisely tailored.
The Internet also allows candidates to slice the audience much more finely. Rather than advertising to everyone who is watching "Jeopardy," for example, candidates can have their ads appear only in front of users who have already been identified as, say, strong progressives, or arch conservatives.
Rosenkranz of New Blue Interactive warned candidates not to underestimate the power of social networks and peer-to-peer activism during her time as a top fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Some politicians get nervous about the two-way nature of the online medium. But, she said, candidates need to trust their supporters to brawl for them in the seemingly limitless threads that come together to make up the online political debate.
"People used to be afraid of this consumer-driven conversation, but you put out a message and your activist supporters are going to defend you," she said. "They really become your message megaphone."
Paul Blumenthal and Aaron Bycoffe contributed to this report.
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