Election consultants for hire in Egypt

An Egyptian man casts his vote at a polling station in Mansura, 120 kms north of Cairo, on March 19, 2011 as voters got their first taste of democracy in a referendum to a package of constitutional changes after president Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish his 30-year grip on power last month in the face of mass street protests.

Kai Ryssdal: The Libyan rebels got a big win today. Diplomatic, though, not military. The Obama administration has decided the Transitional National Council that the rebels set up is a political body that should have have U.S. support. Support -- not full diplomatic recognition, just quite yet.

Libya's still a long way from a political or diplomatic solution, but Egypt right next door has already voted on rules for the presidential campaign that'll be held in the fall. The Egyptian experience with elections under Hosni Mubarak didn't include the words "free" and "fair," so over the next couple of months, candidates and voters there will have a lot to learn.

As we look at how American businesses might fit in to the new economics of the Middle East, Marketplace's David Gura reports on the U.S. contribution to democracy: political consultants.

David Gura: A few weeks ago, Egyptians voted on changes to their constitution that paved the way to new elections. Harvard public policy professor Tarek Masoud followed it closely, and it got him thinking.

Tarek Masoud: How are you actually going to organize the electoral process? How are you going to make sure that when people go and vote, they have the ability to vote and they believe that their vote will actually be reflected in the final vote tally?

Those are questions Ken Feltman has wrestled with for decades. He's a political consultant who has worked with candidates around the world.

Ken Feltman: I want to know: What do the voters want? What are they saying? What do the people want?

In the U.S., candidates have relied on outside help for decades, to do research and polling, and to develop strategies and ad campaigns. It didn't take long, Feltman says, before political consulting became another American export.

Feltman: We were the large democracy, and therefore we were supposed to know how to do things.

Today, election consulting is an international industry, headquartered in Washington but with hubs in France and Argentina. There's reliable work in Europe and Latin America, and now there are new prospects in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt.

Feltman: There are many people trying to get in and be hired, and they've run over thinking that their briefcase is their credentials. The people doing the hiring don't know what's on their checklist.

Part of the reason is that, for the first time, Egyptians will get a chance to vote in an election where the outcome hasn't been decided in advance. Consultant Ben Goddard is open to working for a campaign, but he knows there will be challenges.

Ben Goddard: Egypt has never had elections. Where are you going to find an Egyptian who knows how to run a campaign?

Goddard has been in politics for almost five decades. He says his mission is always the same: to persuade people to a certain point of view, and to make them express that point of view at the polls.

Goddard: Now, the way it's executed needs to be adapted for the culture of each individual nation.

Goddard says he picks clients carefully. Nothing is more valuable to a consultant than his reputation -- and his record.

Goddard: Nobody wants to take on a for-sure loser, but then usually a for-sure loser isn't going to be able to afford us anyway. So, often times that just sorts itself out.

Political consultants work on contract. They can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on how much they're doing and where they're working. But in some places, Goddard says, they're lucky to get paid anything.

Goddard: One of the things you learn very early in international consulting is that you get the money upfront.

There are opportunities for consultants to work for Egyptian campaigns, but Professor Tarek Masoud says there are also risks.

Masoud: I think that any political candidate who gets on the phone and hires, you know, James Carville, and if that became known, that would severely limit their appeal and credibility and popularity with the Egyptian population.

Consultants say that, in their line of work, confidentiality is key, and as Ben Goddard puts it, their goal is to stay "as invisible as possible."

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Tomorrow: education abroad -- American colleges in the Middle East.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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