Even if he doesn’t realize it yet, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s political career is over thanks to his medical school yearbook page that contained a photo of individuals posing in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Since the story broke, many have asked in disbelief “how could this happen?” After all, don’t campaigns hire researchers to extensively vet themselves and their opponents?
Since I was not involved firsthand in the 2017 gubernatorial election I can’t give a precise answer. But as a career political researcher, I can offer some educated guesses that in turn provide lessons as to how campaigns can avoid similar problems.
1. Don’t blame the researchers until you know the budget.
When performed correctly, political research is labor intensive and, thus, costly. As I’ve written before, there’s often a direct correlation between price and quality of research. If you ask your team to bring down cost, it means cutting corners and doing a less thorough job.
In the case of Northam, who had an extensive public record, going back to his medical school days is an area a campaign might have cut. Put another way, if only $20,000 was allocated to research a 35-year record, that’s only $570 of labor for each year of a target’s career. That’s hardly enough to be certain everything gets covered, so campaigns look for cuts to cover certain timeframes more comprehensively.
2. The candidate has to be forthcoming.
Mindbogglingly, there are candidates who omit problems in discussions with their researchers, thinking that if they verbalize a vulnerability with a strategist it will become public. Given that researchers with loose lips tend not to ever work in politics again, that fear is largely unfounded.
Had Northam mentioned that there was someone dressed as a Klan member on his yearbook page — or highlighted that it was common among his generation to don blackface — his team would have likely had a much better plan in place than the now-infamous press conference where Northam admitted to wearing blackface to imitate Michael Jackson. Better yet, had his team known, they probably would have encouraged him not to run for governor and his life’s reputation would have been preserved.
3. Avoid falling for the myth of electoral vetting.
An oft refrain from some career candidates who have run in many elections is “I’ve run for office all my life, anything damaging in my past would have come out already!” Not all elections, however, are created equal and the more important the office, the more significant the vetting the candidates will receive from opponents and the media.
A state senator receives more scrutiny than state representatives, who in turn receive less scrutiny than a member of Congress. Thus, a $1,000 vetting a candidate might have commissioned before their first run for state house is not sufficient for a gubernatorial election.
4. For researchers, it’s time to add post-graduate yearbooks to the checklist.
Every researcher has their own list of items to verify as they investigate candidates. Researchers know to check undergraduate student publications, review post-graduate academic journals, and locate any theses. Many researchers I’ve spoken with, however, don’t look at yearbooks unless they have a truly expansive budget or a good lead why it might be relevant.
The reason? Until now, the worst thing a researcher expected to find in someone’s yearbook is an unfortunate Bob Marley (or in my case Dave Matthews) quote, and some jokes about substance abuse or sex. In today’s political climate such findings are hardly damaging. Researchers know their limited time and budget is better spent elsewhere. Compounding the challenge is that many yearbooks are not easily accessible online and require costly collection trips to local libraries. Still, self-researchers will now be asking their clients if they have theirs handy.
There are exceptions to every rule (see Brett Kavanaugh and “Squi” for details), but up until now, I would have not expected to see a Klan costume in a medical yearbook. Even for those researchers I spoke with who do their best to check every targets’ yearbook, it’s a task far down the list.
All of that has changed thanks to Northam. Researchers are frantically double-checking yearbooks and, undoubtedly, will be doing so early in the research process moving forward.
Steven D’Amico is the founder of D’Amico Strategy & Communications, an opposition and strategic communications firm offering services to both the campaign and private sectors. He most recently served as research director and senior advisor at American Bridge 21st Century, overseeing their department of thirty researchers.