For Political Pros, Unemployment Gets Personal

When politics-smitten David Humphreville chucked a six-figure salary as a Wall Street lawyer to become a Democratic campaign consultant in 1988, he thought he'd made the right move. Last year, the 34-year-old Humphreville earned $80,000 developing themes and issues for such candidates as Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and unsuccessful Senate challenger Harry Lonsdale in Oregon. He loved it: "I found that at 10 at night, I'd rather be fielding an attack from a challenger than reading law briefs."

Like a lot of other political pros, Humphreville expected an early start to 1992 campaigns to pay the bills this year. But the pall cast on political activity by the Persian Gulf war has turned the normal off-year slowdown in political activity into what Republican operative John Buckley calls "a flat-out depression" for many campaign consultants, pollsters, and media advisers. "I may actually have to get a real job," frets Humphreville.

Those consultants who do survive the shakeout could cash in next year. Redistricting and retirements are likely to produce a record number of hot races for open House seats. And by the time it's all over, total campaign spending for 1992 may well set another record.

SLIM PICKINGS. In the meantime, however, even a quick end to the Persian Gulf war won't bring an immediate return to politics as usual, since Democratic Presidential aspirants will want to let a respectable interval pass before resuming partisan hostilities. "We are a year from Iowa and New Hampshire, and there is absolutely nothing going on," says Tom Edmonds of the American Association of Political Consultants. "I've never seen this before."

The pickings are so slim that such big consulting firms as Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly are being forced to drum up business from state legislature candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, which hold elections this fall. Four years ago, the top Democratic media firm of Doak & Shrum was tailoring a message for Presidential candidate Richard A. Gephardt in Iowa. Now, it has to be content with beating out the Sawyer/Miller Group to run the Kentucky gubernatorial campaign of Martha Wilkinson.

Not surprisingly, the squeeze is fiercest in Iowa and New Hampshire, home to the first nominating contests. The 1988 Iowa caucus pumped $22 million into the state's economy. Today Des Moines storefronts that should be bustling with activity as campaign field offices stand empty. Bruce Koeppl, a veteran Iowa Democratic organizer, is helping pay his bills as a lobbyist at the state legislature. "It's sort of weird. You check rumors out, thinking there might be some business, and there's nothing to it," he says.

To make ends meet, consultants are diversifying into such work as selling "image management" services to foreign countries and corporations. Sawyer/Miller recently added Southland Corp. and Nynex Corp. to a client list that includes Portugal, Colombia, and the Philippines. Smaller firms are grabbing whatever crumbs they can find, from devising low-budget ads for 900 phone services to arranging corporate videoconferences.

With consultants being blamed for last year's mud-slinging campaigns, the public won't shed many tears at the industry's distress. "We don't get much sympathy," says James Carville, a staff recruiter for Democratic campaigns. "But there's a lot of campaign talent eating into their savings right now." As for Carville, he hasn't been hitting the hustings much. "I've been spending my time watching Andy Griffith reruns," he says.