WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton began his quest for the White House with just five clerical staff to supplement volunteers in the early fall of 1991. His $26,543 in expenditures for the first three months included $342.88 for telephone installation, $1,263.34 for office supplies, and $418.09 for the ingredients to make cookies for his announcement celebration.
Sixteen years later, at a similar stage of the campaign, his wife, Hillary Clinton, has already paid more than $1.3 million to 10 different types of professional political operatives to advise her on everything from media strategy to trip planning and Internet use. Her campaign, which has spent $17.8 million overall, hired more than 350 people during the first half of this year, making it a bigger employer than 96 percent of US businesses, according to the US Census Bureau.
In just a few election cycles, running for president of the United States has undergone a profound - and costly - change. Campaigns that once began as ideological missions driven by candidates and volunteers have been subsumed by a permanent class of professionals whose job is to keep the campaign on a carefully crafted script.
The 2008 race has already set new benchmarks for the use of political consultants, with two candidates - Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain - having already spent more on consultants in six months than what the eventual 2004 nominees, John F. Kerry and George W. Bush, spent on professional advisers for their entire campaigns.
But 2008 may ultimately be remembered for what all that money bought: A culture in which candidates are being instructed what to wear, what to say, where to travel, and what theme song best suits their message.
The result, says Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University, is that candidates are spending much less time thinking about "what to do in Iraq" and much more time spent thinking about "how to spin what we do in Iraq."
Frank Mankiewicz, a Democratic activist and onetime adviser to Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, said the reliance on money and consultants has altered the nature of elections, making them less a reflection of popular will than an attempt to mold popular will.
"It cheapens them - in the cultural sense, not the money sense," Mankiewicz said.
Candidates' filings to the Federal Election Commission - once peppered with spending items such as coffee, buttons, and cheap office rentals - now read like the annual reports of major corporations.
One candidate, Barack Obama, has already paid more than $2 million in payroll taxes alone - 50 percent more than what Bill Clinton spent on his entire campaign in 1991.
Some candidates' war chests have grown so big that they can be sources of income themselves. Collectively, the contenders earned more than $350,000 in bank interest on their campaign accounts for the first half of the year.
And while political consultants first became a major line item in FEC filings about two decades ago, a Globe analysis of this year's financial reports reveals an explosion of consulting specialties and subspecialties, including managing websites, building a technology infrastructure, staging trips and events, handling the media, and, of course, raising more money.
Finance and fund-raising consultants were paid more than $6.8 million this year by the presidential candidates, according to FEC filings and data from the CQ Moneyline website. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney alone spent more on finance consultants - about $1.8 million - than the Bush-Cheney campaign spent on such advisers for the entirety of the 2003-04 campaign.
In all, the 17 candidates who filed FEC reports this year spent a record $16,221,563 on consultants in the first six months of 2007, a dramatic increase from the comparable period in 2003 or any other election cycle. Even most of the lower-funded candidates set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultants.
As a result, many observers wonder if anyone will be able to do what Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did in their slow-building campaigns for the presidency: Start small and use free media and public appearances to spread their messages.
"If you have to hire a roomful of consultants to tell you what you believe, maybe you shouldn't be president," said one candidate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican who is hoping to follow Bill Clinton's trajectory. "If we're not careful, we're going to turn the presidency into a plutocracy." Huckabee has spent $171,000 on political consultants.
History of campaigns
For much of American history, presidential candidates did not campaign. George Washington viewed it as unseemly, and for 100 years almost all candidates emulated him. Then, in 1896, the young Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan chose to travel around and speak to audiences from the backs of railroad cars.
In succeeding decades, nominees started hitting the campaign trail. The use of political handlers first arose as candidates began giving more speeches and staging more events. But the advisers tended to be loyalists deeply connected to a particular candidate. Only in the late 20th century, Lichtman said, did political consultants emerge as "hired guns."
Joe Napolitan, of Springfield, Mass., started as a volunteer for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960 and eventually became a paid consultant to Hubert Humphrey in 1968, among others. Some historians consider Napolitan the first modern-style political consultant, providing professional services to a range of candidates for payment.
But as recently as the 1980s, political consulting was a relatively low-money occupation, performed by people who didn't mind sleeping in bad motels and transacting business in diners.
Now, however, many prominent consultants live in mansions in Washington's tonier suburbs and service clients around the globe. The profession of politics is so advanced that at least 14 universities have graduate programs in campaign management, according to the American Association of Political Consultants. George Washington University, which started such a program in 1987 with just 24 students, now graduates 200 per year.
But even since the last presidential election, the use of consultants has grown sharply. Seven candidates have already topped $1 million in spending on consultants, with one, Rudy Giuliani, topping $2 million, and McCain and Romney above $3 million; by contrast, Kerry spent less than $2 million for the entire 2004 campaign, and Bush was under $3 million.
Moreover, while some candidates in 2004 listed consultants for research or policy, this year's spending appears mainly dedicated to politics, not issues. Those who develop plans on such matters as healthcare, the Iraq war, and tax policy tend to be unpaid, while the money goes to the professional political advisers who sell those policies.
Some of those professionals are consultants; many others can be paid staff. And in this election, campaigns have greatly expanded their paid staffs.
Bill Clinton entered the critical month of January 1992, leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, with 63 paid staff members. He spent less than $130,000 in the final three months of 1991 to pay his campaign workers. Since the campaign did not begin as early as the 2008 race - the former president established his exploratory committee in August of 1991 and formally announced in October - Clinton had no expenditures for the first half of 1991.
But during the first six months of this year - the start of the 2008 campaign - seven presidential contenders had well over 100 salaried employees. Collectively, the 17 candidates spent more than $22.9 million on staff salaries and another $11.4 million in payroll taxes, according to their FEC filings.
Campaign officials say the army of staff is especially needed this year because of the front-loaded primary schedule. More than 20 states have scheduled - or are threatening to schedule - their nominating contests to January and early February, challenging candidates to reach more voters in more states.
"Better [state] organizations cost money," said Bill Burton, spokesman for Obama, who listed 437 staff members for the first six months of this year.
Keeping track of shifting deadlines and requirements to appear on state ballots creates a need for more staff, many campaigns said.
And the number of early contests has made travel more complicated; contenders who would normally camp out in Iowa and New Hampshire for the early months of the campaign are now wooing voters in huge states such as Florida and California, both of which have moved up their primaries. With limited time - especially for the 11 candidates currently serving as governor, congressman, or US senator - staff and consultants are needed to help candidates select where to campaign most efficiently, campaign officials said.
But the quest for efficiency has also changed the character of the campaign. Even in the early-primary states, where retail campaigning once thrived, voters needed tickets to attend highly publicized appearances by candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Obama; meanwhile, campaigns have utilized new ways to reach people other than conventional campaigning, including humorous videos, Internet ads, auctions for time with the candidates, and summer-camp-style networking events for supporters.
"A campaign is a business, with a one-day sale," said Jim Spencer, a Massachusetts consultant who advised Governor Deval Patrick's campaign. "It's a very professional sport these days. There's a lot at stake, and we have to penetrate [with] a message in a very short period of time."
Indeed, the greatest amount of money spent on consultants this year has been on those who help candidates raise more money.
"There simply aren't enough hours in the day to raise all the money you need. You need to hire someone to help you do that," said Nancy Bosckar, a GOP fund-raising consultant who recommends that her clients spend between 35 percent and 50 percent of their time fund-raising.
Even some campaigns acknowledge that too much reliance on consultants can turn elections into battles for money and organization instead of ideas. "It turns people off of politics," said Ron Paul, a Texas representative and GOP presidential candidate who has no consultants. "They know it's fake."
But many campaigns believe money and consultants buy credibility. Without a big campaign apparatus, candidates can be relegated to back-of-the-pack status.
"The system [this year] is closing off the competition very quickly. This is a seriously flawed presidential nominating process," said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. "Money substitutes for time, and good judgment requires time."
Howard Park, a veteran Democratic activist, recalled knowing every single campaign staffer for Carter in 1976. Now, Park is doing some field work for Obama in New Hampshire, and hasn't even met all of the senator's New Hampshire staff.
At one point during 1984, former Colorado senator Gary Hart's presidential campaign owed Park some $26,000 in expenses. "We were so poor at that time, we had to wait until the next primary to get reimbursed," Park said - a cash flow situation that would be unthinkable for a well-funded candidate in the current campaign.
Presidential campaigns are likely to continue getting richer, in terms of money, staff, and consultants, many specialists said - a trend that even Napolitan, hailed as the nation's first modern-style political consultant, said could be detrimental to a candidate if the consultants get too much power.
"If a guy can't run his own campaign, how the hell is he going to run the state or the country?" Napolitan said.