Party Foul: Inside the Rise of Spies, Mercenaries, and Billionaire Moneymen

Why parties no longer control American politics

Lexey Swall for TIME

On a cold Saturday in January, a spy slipped into a craft brewery in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where Hillary Clinton's standing army was huddled in a private room. The 43-year-old operative lurked in the corner with a camera on a tripod, recording the group of old Clinton hands as they plotted her path to the presidency. Within hours, a clip of the gathering was shipped to the snoop's employer, a for-profit research firm in northern Virginia. From there, it was packaged for a conservative magazine and subsequently went viral online. It was an early score in a presidential election that won't officially begin for another year — and it happened without any involvement from a candidate or either party.

This is the dawn of the outsourced campaign. For decades, elections have been the business of candidates and political parties and the professionals they employed. But changes in campaign-finance law have atomized the game and sapped the power of party bosses. In a new era marked by unlimited political money, everything from data mining to digital strategy is now increasingly controlled by a band of outside hit squads waging proxy wars.

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