Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter were the husband-and-wife duo that started Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the United States. Based in California, the firm worked on a variety of political issues, mainly for Republican candidates. Together, they developed strategies and tactics - such as broadcast media buys and direct mail - still widely used in today's campaigns. Their work would not only revolutionize politics in the modern era but also deeply impact political issues that resonate today.  

No single factor has altered the workings of American democracy so much as political consulting,  unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, consultants replaced party bosses as the masters of political power driven by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first to make politics a business. They virtually created the billion-dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from Presidential campaigns to the candidates for city council.  Between 1933 and 1955, Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, winning seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they ran, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., shapes American politics even today.


Upton Sinclair's, I, Governor of California, is among the best campaign literature ever written. Sinclair, the author of forty-seven books, including, “The Jungle,” wrote a novel announcing a gubernatorial bid in the form of an alternate history of the future, in which Sinclair is elected governor in 1934, and by 1938 has eradicated poverty. “So far as I know,” the author remarked, “this is the first time a historian has set out to make his history true.” Only sixty-four pages, it sold a hundred and fifty thousand copies in four months.

At the time of the 1932 Presidential election, California was a one-party state. Almost all of the seats in the state legislature were held by Republicans; not a single Democrat-held statewide office. The unemployment rate in the state was twenty-nine percent.  The premise of the book was soon to become reality,   What if Upton Sinclair, a lifelong socialist, ran as a Democrat for governor in 1934?

Sinclair adopted the acronymic campaign slogan, “END POVERTY IN CALIFORNIA” (“It was pointed out that the initials of these words spell ‘EPIC’ ”); picked a campaign emblem - the busy bee (“she not only works hard but has means to defend herself”); detailed a program of co√∂perative factories and farms that would implement his philosophy of “production for use” rather than for profit; and advocated  ending the sales tax while levying a thirty-per-cent income tax on anyone earning more than fifty thousand dollars a year. It seemed for a time, Sinclair was going to win. In August of 1934, Sinclair won the Democratic nomination, with more votes than any primary candidate in California had ever won before.  

By November Sinclair was writing  a nonfiction sequel called “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.”  Sinclair began. “Here is set forth how a scholar went into politics, and what happened to him.” “How I Got Licked” was published in daily installments in fifty newspapers. In it, Sinclair described how, immediately after the Democratic Convention, the Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice that the paper continued, every day, for six weeks, until the opening of the polls. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”

Sinclair's defeat was because of what he called the "Lie Factory". It was the true beginning of opposition research,  They discovered lines Sinclair had written, speeches of characters in novels, and stick them in the paper as if Sinclair had said them. “They had a staff of political chemists at work, preparing poisons to be let loose in the California atmosphere on every one of a hundred mornings.” Actually, it was a staff of only two, and the company wasn’t called the Lie Factory. It was called Campaigns, Inc.

The first political-consulting firm was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. Whitaker, thirty-four, had started out as a newspaperman,  was working as a reporter at the age of thirteen. At nineteen, he was city editor for the Sacramento Union and, a couple of years later, the political writer for the San Francisco Examiner. Friendly and gangly, he had big ears,  smoked,  never stopped talking, and typed with two fingers. He started and sold a newspaper wire service, the Capitol News Bureau, distributing stories to eighty papers. which he sold to the United Press. 

Three years on, he was hired by Sheridan Downey, a prominent Democrat, to help defeat a referendum sponsored by Pacific Gas and Electric. Downey had also hired Baxter, a twenty-six-year-old widow who had been a writer for the Portland Oregonian, and suggested that she and Whitaker become partners, and they started doing business as Campaigns, Inc. The referendum was defeated. Whitaker separated from his wife. In 1938, he and Baxter married. 

They lived in Marin County, in a house with a heated swimming pool. They began every day with a two-hour breakfast to plan the day. She sometimes called him Clem; he only ever called her Baxter. Campaigns, Inc., specialized in running political campaigns for businesses, especially monopolies like Standard Oil and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Their Big Business client base was so impressed that they began to put Campaigns, Inc., on retainer.

The advertising industry began as an offshoot of political consulting. When modern advertising began, the big clients were more interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies looked greedy and ruthless if not sinister.  They hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of large corporations and to advance the pro-business legislation they needed to prosper.  Sinclair once said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,  Big Business has won every skirmish.”

California Republicans were horrified at the prospect of Sinclair in the governor’s office. They had to work fast. Whitaker and Baxter were hired only two months before the election by George Hatfield, the candidate for lieutenant governor. They were hired to destroy Sinclair. They began by locking themselves in a room for three days with everything he had ever written. “Upton was beaten,” Whitaker later said, “because he had written books.”  

One quote stood out. "The sanctity of marriage. . . . I have had such a belief . . . I have it no longer," was taken from a passage in his 1911 novel, “Love’s Pilgrimage,” in which one character writes a heartbroken letter to a man having an affair with his wife.  “Sure, those quotations were irrelevant,” Baxter later said. “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.”

In the years after defeating Sinclair, Whitaker and Baxter had added a few more items to their repertoire. Harper’s later reported, “In a typical campaign they employed ten million pamphlets and leaflets; 50,000 letters to ‘key individuals and officers of organizations’; 70,000 inches of advertising in 700 newspapers; 3,000 spot announcements on 109 radio stations; theater slides and trailers in 160 theaters; 1,000 large billboards and 18,000 or 20,000 smaller posters.”) In 1940, they produced materials for the  Wendell Willkie’s Presidential campaign, including a speaker’s manual that offered advice about how to handle Democrats in the audience: “rather than refer to the opponent as the ‘Democratic Party’ or ‘New Deal Administration’ refer to the Candidate by name only.”

The film grossed about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.  For a referendum campaign, Whitaker and Baxter charged between twenty-five thousand and seventy-five thousand dollars, with complete control of the budget for the campaign. Clem and Leone also ran the Clem Whitaker Advertising Agency, which charged a fifteen-per-cent commission from clients for every ad. 

They added a newspaper wire service, the California Feature Service, and sent both a political clip sheet every week, to fifteen hundred “thought leaders,” and cartoons, editorials, and articles to three hundred newspapers. Rural newspapers, desperate for copy,  often printed whatever the California Feature Service sent them.  These included press releases disguised as editorials endorsing whatever political positions Campaigns, Inc. was being paid to advance. The trick was to send out clippings so sly that a tired editor might not notice that they were written by an advertising outfit. 

Whitaker and Baxter wrote the rule book that defines campaigns even today.
  • Never lobby; woo voters instead.  
  • Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. 
  • If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one.  
  • Attack, attack, attack. Whitaker said, “You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win!”
  • Never underestimate the opposition. 
  • Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. 
  • Rhyming’s good. (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3.”) 
  • Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support.” 
  • Say the same thing over and over again. “We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. 
  • Subtlety is your enemy. “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” 
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
  • Fan flames. “We need more partisanship in this country,” Whitaker said. 
  • Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. 
  • “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,” Whitaker advised. “But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign and only two that we have ever found successful.” You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches, pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”): “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”
  • Winner takes all. “If you launch a campaign for a new car, your client doesn’t expect you to lead the field necessarily in the first year, or even the tenth year,” Whitaker once said. “But in politics, they don’t pay off for PLACE OR SHOW! You have to win, if you want to stay in business.”

In 1944, Earl Warren was elected Governor of California. Troubled by the way he had won after Whitaker and Baxter issued an election-eve press release without his approval, he fired them. They never forgave him.  Earl Warren began his political career as a conservative and ended it as one of the most hated liberals in American history. What happened to him? One answer is Whitaker and Baxter.

Retained by the California Medical Association for an annual fee of twenty-five thousand dollars to campaign against the Warren'sr’s plan for health care reform, Whitaker and Baxter took a piece of legislation that most liked and taught them to revile it. “You can’t beat something with nothing,” they liked to say. They launched a drive for Californians to buy their own insurance, privately. Voluntary Health Insurance Week, driven by forty thousand inches of advertising in more than four hundred newspapers, was observed in fifty-three of the state’s fifty-eight counties. Whitaker and Baxter sent more than nine thousand doctors out with prepared speeches. They coined a slogan: “Political medicine is bad medicine.” 

During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt called for major healthcare reform in the form of government-subsidized medicine. In 1945, Harry Truman took up the fight, calling on Congress to overhaul the country's healthcare system. The American Medical Association began to lobby against the president's proposal, in 1949, retaining Whitaker & Baxter to help them with their efforts. The AMA paid Whitaker & Baxter $350,000 to defeat Truman's healthcare plan. In their usual style, Whitaker & Baxter began an all-out media war against the legislation,  distributing over 100 million pieces of literature. In just two weeks of the campaign, they spent $1.1 million in advertising on behalf of the AMA. As part of their messaging, they began calling the president's healthcare plan socialized medicine" leveraging the same allusions to communism that brought down Sinclair. 

Whitaker and Baxter’s campaign against Harry Truman’s national-health-insurance proposal cost the A.M.A. nearly five million dollars, and it took more than three years. But they turned the President’s sensible, popular, and urgently needed legislative reform into a bogeyman so scary that, even today, millions of Americans are still scared. Truman was furious. As to what in his plan could possibly be construed as “socialized medicine,” he told the press in 1952,  he didn’t know.   That fall, the A.M.A. let Whitaker and Baxter go, explaining that it had decided that keeping the agency on retainer would compromise its nonpartisan status. Whitaker and Baxter were untroubled. They went to work for Eisenhower-Nixon.


In 1952, television was used, for the first time, in a Presidential campaign. In 1948, less than three percent of American homes had a television; by 1952, penetration was fast approaching fifty per cent. That year, Republicans spent $1.5 million on television advertising; Democrats spent seventy-seven thousand dollars. On television, spots for Eisenhower—“I Like Ike” and “The Man from Abilene”—whose themes were based on George Gallup’s polling, masqueraded as documentaries; they looked like newsreels.

Like everyone running for office after him, he was coached and groomed,  and polished. And made up. In a TV spot called “Eisenhower Answers America,” a young  man asks, “General, the Democrats are telling me I never had it so good.” Eisenhower replies, “Can that be true, when America is billions in debt when prices have doubled, when taxes break our backs, and we are still fighting in Korea? It’s tragic.” Then he looked, straight into the camera. “It’s time for a change.”


In the late 1950s, Whitaker and Baxter had a falling out with then client Governor Knight. While Knight had hired the duo for several of his earlier campaigns, he did not bring them back on for his run for the Senate in 1958. Because of this and Whitaker's failing health, the company began to fade from the political scene. Later in 1958, Whitaker and Baxter sold their company to Clem Whitaker Jr., who would later redirect the focus of their business operations into corporate public relations. The duo formed Whitaker and Baxter International, a smaller public relations consulting firm, which they would run from a San Francisco hotel room. 

In 1961, Whitaker died of emphysema. Leone Baxter continued running Whitaker and Baxter International after her husband's death. In 2001, she died in Sacramento at the age of 96. She liked to work behind the scenes. In all her long life—she died in 2001, at the age of ninety-five—she rarely gave interviews. She made an exception in the nineteen-sixties. She was asked, “Do the procedures you designed early in the game and utilized so successfully over the years, Leone, still work today, or have you found it necessary to change them?”

“The basic rules I would say are wholly unchanged,” she said. “The strategies are unchanged.” There was television, of course. “But I would say that the philosophy of political campaigning hasn’t changed a whit. The tools have changed, the philosophy has not.”

She was also asked, “Does political public relations actually transfer political power into the hands of those who exercise it?”

“It certainly could and has in some instances,” she said, carefully. “In this profession of leading men’s minds, this is the reason I feel it must be in the hands of the most ethical, principled people—people with real concern for the world around them, for people around them—or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.”  



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