The Market for Political Operatives

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 8 2012 9:21 AM

The Market for Political Operatives

It's very understandable that big-dollar Republican donors who spent millions on the 2012 election are now somewhat pissed off at the consultants and operatives who took their money and delivered few victories. But stepping back from the contingencies of 2012, it's worth noting that this is just an inherently troubled market.

It's very different from, say, a restaurant. A restaurant opens and it faces a challenge in getting people in the door. But if it meets that marketing hurdle, then if the customers like the food other people will hear about it. And what the restaurant needs to do is keep cooking and serving food such that the customers enjoy it, come back, and say good things to their friends. The chef never does a really great job but the food tastes lousy anyway.

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Campaigns exist in a fog of uncertainty. Scott Brown ended up on Election Day with a pretty solid approval rating, but he lost anyway. Is that his fault? His team's? Or is it just really hard for a Republican to win in Massachusetts? Did Elizabeth Warren run a great campaign and Martha Coakley an average one, or was Warren average and Coakley horrible? It's very difficult to say.

These information problems around campaigns aren't a huge deal economically speaking simply because the campaigning industry isn't so big. But a very similar problem afflicts, say, the health care industry. People get sick. They get treated. They usually get better. They sometimes die. But just because you got better doesn't mean the treatments were effective and just because you died doesn't mean the doctors screwed up. In fact, we had healers and doctors as professions for hundreds of years before we had any scientifically valid treatments at all. In some fields it's just extremely difficult to assess quality.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.