Anyone who has managed a campaign knows the importance of opposition research in winning an election. Millions of dollars are spent annually on oppo to find even the femur bone of a skeleton in the enemy’s closet. Everything’s fair game, even trivial matters such as unpaid back taxes or marijuana use in college—things one would not usually consider as criteria for public office.
Meanwhile, significantly less money and energy is spent on self-research. That is to say, the detailed examination of the candidate’s own background.
Self-research may seem like an unnecessary indulgence, especially when a campaign is running on a shoestring budget and as much money as possible is going into voter contact and paid media buys. After all, wouldn’t you think that the candidate would know all of this information about himself or herself before embarking on a quest for public office? Yet every cycle you hear story after story about extramarital affairs or other lewd actions that ultimately bring down even the most squeaky-clean candidate. Herman Cain is only the latest example of this.
Before Cain, one of the most prominent failures of self-research was embodied by Scott Lee Cohen, the Democratic nominee for lt. governor in Illinois in 2010. Cohen, a millionaire businessman who had not previously sought political office, ran as an anti-corruption candidate. He bragged that he had founded a group called “Rod Must Resign” in response to the corruption allegations against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
Cohen won the February primary, but he was soon forced to withdraw. His candidacy was unsustainable after it emerged that Cohen had been arrested for threatening a prostitute ex-girlfriend with a knife. And the Chicago Sun-Times reported on allegations he flew into an uncontrolled rage against his former wife because of his use of anabolic steroids. Cohen denied he ever “flew into a rage,” but admitted using steroids.
It’s unclear how much Cohen’s camp knew about his past. The benefit of self-research is that it opens up all the old baggage and allows the senior campaign staff to begin crafting a response. In Cohen’s case, there may have been no effective way to counteract the charges of domestic abuse. But self-research would have given his camp the opportunity to fine tune a response before the story broke, which is effective crisis management 101.
I’ve seen how good preparation can inoculate a candidate against bad press. Back in 2008, I worked for a candidate running for state House in Pennsylvania who had failed to properly pay some of his taxes on time a few years earlier. When the story ultimately came out in the fall it managed to last a single news cycle and inflict minimal damage on the candidate. Why? My boss immediately released a statement complete with supporting documentation from the governing jurisdiction in question.
He not only admitted fault, but explained how he had immediately rectified the situation and stressed how he has not had any problems with his taxes since. Sadly, he lost a very tight race that year—a casualty of President Obama’s wave in a state that allows straight-ticket voting. But in a 2010 rematch, he easily bested the incumbent Democrat.
This isn’t to say that every allegation launched against your candidate will be true and can be prepared for. But having a strategy in place for handling the known potential accusations—developed though self-research—can not only nip the story in the bud, but also potentially save your boss’s future political aspirations. In that case, the money spent on self-research is well worth it.
Katie LaPotin is an account executive at Advocacy Ink, a full-service public relations, communications and political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. Previously, she worked at a Republican polling firm and on several campaigns in southeastern Pennsylvania.