The candidate was a former county party chairman, popular and effective by all accounts. Now aiming to knock off an incumbent, he was locked in a vicious primary battle.
His problem? He hadn’t bothered to vote in a full quarter of primaries since leaving the chairmanship. He had utterly failed to vote in any school board elections in recent years. And his stump line against opposing any tax increase wasn’t buoyed by the fact he skipped voting against two tax-increase referenda.
The voting record wasn’t this candidate’s sole Achilles heel, but it helped backstop voters against him as he went down to a solid loss in the primary. Voters don’t like hypocrites.
Good opposition research is a vital part of running a local campaign. It’s not about going negative, but using facts and evidence to highlight contrasts with your opponent and weaknesses in their candidacy.
Too many campaigns just leave it to Google, or assume voters will recall obscure details of a controversial zoning board vote. That’s not enough these days. Local campaigns need dogged, detail-oriented researchers to dig deep and conduct thorough assessments of the race. And the fruits of good oppo must be integrated into the communications team’s work.
What ethical opposition researchers do is nothing secret or nefarious – it’s using the same tactics and techniques as investigative journalists have utilized for decades, turning public records into public stories. Here are 10 ways for local campaigns to get the goods:
1. Prior media coverage
Search your local outlets – newspapers, politically minded blogs, radio, TV, and online sites. If your newspaper archives are on newspapers.com, get a $20 monthly subscription to go back decades. Search for the opponent’s name, of course, but also their partner’s name, past employers, businesses, and home address. You never know what will come up in crime blotters and legal notices.
2. Court records
Federal court records are online through PACER, but you may have to go to the courthouse in person to check state and local files. Search for variations and misspellings of their name. Don’t overlook alderman’s courts, traffic courts, or small claims courts. Civil suits can unearth prior connections to people the candidate may not want to talk about today. Otherwise, a pattern of speeding tickets can be quite embarrassing.
3. Meeting minutes and recordings
If the candidate is a public official, their record in office must be a focus. Town councils, zoning commissions, school boards – check them all. Track votes and comments on important issues. If you see a pattern of attendance issues emerging, use a simple spreadsheet to document and quantify their no-show record.
4. Campaign finance records
Once the election season is underway, you’ll have access to a wealth of data on their supporters and who they’re paying. If they’re self-financing, make a note of the loan totals. How does that compare to the actual salary of the position? If they’ve run for office before, check out their old filings, too.
Under contributions, look for donors representing a particular industry, people with controversial pasts, or contributors coming from the same address or last name. A large number of out-of-state donations can be a valid line of questioning. Don’t overlook expenditures – pricey restaurants, big-name consultants, or odd spending patterns.
5. Personal financial disclosure reports
Depending on your state or local laws, they may have filed reports that outline sources of income, stock holdings, business ownerships, investments, and other details. These are designed to highlight potential conflicts of interest – and that’s exactly what you should use them for, too.
6. Property, tax, zoning, and code records
If the candidate owns property, you can get details including the purchase price, assessed value, improvements and major renovations, zoning changes, tax payments, and much more. Be sure to check under their partner’s name and any businesses they own, as well. Patterns of city code violations may be insightful.
7. Business and corporation records
Licenses, permits, and corporate ownership records can shed light onto their business dealings and relationships. Exactly what’s available to the public will depend on your state laws. Search business databases for their address and partner’s name to turn up businesses or holding companies that few people know about, then search court and property records for any mention of every name. Did a license lapse or a permit expire? Was their business cited for any violations?
8. Voting records
As in the example above, voting records can tell a story about whether a candidate has been an active participant in civic life, or ignored their basic democratic responsibilities. (Just check your candidate’s history first.) Voting records may also tell how long someone has been a member of a party and help document their address history.
9. Nonprofit Form 990s
If the candidate has been involved with a nonprofit organization as an employee, board member, or contractor, these public forms can shed light on their precise involvement, compensation, or possible conflicts. Guidestar.org and IRS.gov have some filings available for free online, and nonprofits are required to provide the most recent forms when asked.
10. College and high school alumni offices
If your candidate isn’t widely known, these can be an excellent source of basic biographical information. Alumni magazines and directories can provide employment histories, family information, and more. Don’t overlook the archives of student newspapers, which may have documented hazing scandals, cheating charges, or early political positions that conflict controversially with their current stances.
Now that you’ve got some good research in hand, focus on the framing. Place what you’ve learned against a backdrop of what voters and the media know – past statements, quotes, positions, experience. The anti-big-government conservative may have a strong message, but do her voters know that her business has profited from government contracts? Did the campaign of the self-appointed city spending watchdog drop $4,000 at a ritzy Italian restaurant? Look for contradictions in their public and private personas.
Also examine relationships closely: a basic spreadsheet can help track all the names. Did a developer who the candidate supported while on the zoning board later donate the maximum to their campaign or to their nonprofit?
You don’t need a single silver bullet to take your opponent down in one move. Often, a series of smaller disclosures may be more useful to raise continued questions about their viability. The keys are to start early, be consistent, and cast a wide net.
Dan Shortridge is a former journalist and the author of DIY Public Relations: Telling Your Story on a Zero-Dollar Budget.