Say "government" in a word association game to most entrepreneurs and the responses will range from "an annoyance" to "all that is wrong in this universe." Not so for Charlie Cook, who started the Cook Political Report in 1984 as a nonpartisan newsletter handicapping every presidential, senatorial, congressional, and gubernatorial race in the U.S. His has become the first (and last) name in election analysis.
Originally, the Cook Political Report struggled to find an audience. "My sole contract was canceled right around when my first child was born," Cook recalls. Fortunately for the infant, a governmental research company hired Cook, agreeing that he could still publish the newsletter, which the company bought for a low six figures -- more than it was worth.
When an international PR conglomerate acquired the research company, an unhappy Cook took to drawing cartoons of himself behind bars that said "Day 38 of Cook Held Hostage" and leaving them under the windshield wipers of his boss's car. Later, when the PR firm got into financial trouble, it relented and sold the business back to Cook.
Even-numbered years are always better for Cook's firm, and 2004 will be no different. Revenue will top a million dollars, Cook says. The newsletter has 800 subscribers who pay $295 a year -- it only breaks even, but "it establishes our credibility," he says. The real money, ever since Congress banned honoraria for its members, is in speeches. Cook has traveled to 30 states this year to address groups such as the associations of International Housewares and the Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. He is paid between $6,000 and $12,000 per event. "I'm a ham so I like it," he says, "but by December I am tired of politics."
The most important news these days, he says, is that income no longer determines party affiliation. Upscale northeastern suburbs no longer vote Republican. Meanwhile, poorer white voters of the sort who used to be Democrats vote on guns, abortion, and cultural issues. "It's a fundamental shift," says Cook. And shifts are good for his business.