Political campaigns

10 Ways Local Campaigns Can Harness Opposition Research

The candidate was a former county party chairman, popular and effective in every way. Now aiming to bring down a starter, he was locked in a vicious primary battle.

His problem ? He hadn’t bothered to vote for a full quarter of the primaries since stepping down as president. He had absolutely not voted in school elections in recent years. And his stump line against opposing any tax increases was not bolstered by his skipping the vote against two tax increase referendums.

The voting record wasn’t this candidate’s only Achilles’ heel, but it did help support voters against him as he suffered a solid primary defeat. Voters don’t like hypocrites.

Good opposition research is an essential part of running a local campaign. It’s not about getting negative, it’s about using facts and evidence to highlight contrasts with your opponent and weaknesses in their candidacy.

Too many campaigns leave it up to Google or assume that voters will remember murky details of a contentious zoning board vote. It’s not enough these days. Local campaigns need hard-working, detail-oriented researchers to dig deep and conduct in-depth assessments of the race. And the fruits of a good oppo must be integrated into the work of the communication team.

There’s nothing secret or nefarious about what ethical opposition researchers do — they use the same tactics and techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades, turning public records into public stories. Here are 10 ways local campaigns can get the goods:

1. Previous Media Coverage

Research your local outlets – newspapers, political blogs, radio, television and online sites. If your newspaper archive is on journals.com, get a $20 monthly subscription to go back decades. Research the opponent’s name, of course, but also their partner’s name, past employers, businesses, and home address. You never know what will happen in the crime records and legal notices.

2. Court records

Federal Court records are online through PACER, but you may need to visit the courthouse in person to check state and local records. Look for variations and misspellings of their name. Don’t overlook councilmen’s courts, traffic courts or small claims courts. Civil suits can reveal past ties to people the candidate may not want to talk about today. Otherwise, a series of speeding tickets can be quite embarrassing.

3. Meeting minutes and recordings

If the candidate is a public official, his file in office must be a priority. City 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 will have access to a wealth of data on their supporters and who they pay. If they are self-financing, note the total loans. How does this compare to the actual salary for the position? If they have run for office before, check their past records as well.

Under contributions, look for donors representing a particular industry, people with controversial pasts, or contributors 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 spending – expensive restaurants, big-name consultants, or weird spending habits.

5. Personal Financial Disclosure Statements

Depending on your state or local laws, they may have filed reports outlining sources of income, stock holdings, business properties, investments, and other details. These are designed to highlight potential conflicts of interest – and that’s exactly why you should use them too.

6. Property, Tax, Zoning and Code Records

If the candidate owns a property, you can get details including purchase price, assessed value, major upgrades and renovations, zoning changes, tax payments and more. Be sure to check under their partner’s name and any businesses they own as well. Patterns of city code violations can be telling.

7. Business and company registers

Business licenses, permits and ownership records can inform business transactions and relationships. Exactly what is publicly available will depend on your state’s laws. Search business databases for their address and partner’s name to find businesses or holding companies few people know about, then search court and property records for any mention of each name. Has a license expired or has a permit expired? Has their company been cited for violations?

8. Voting records

As in the example above, voting records can indicate whether a candidate actively participated in civic life or ignored basic democratic responsibilities. (Check your candidate’s history first.) Voting records can also show how long someone has been a party member and help document their address history.

9. Nonprofit Form 990

If the applicant has been involved with a nonprofit as an employee, board member, or contractor, these public forms can shed light on their specific involvement, compensation, or potential conflicts. Guidestar.org and IRS.gov have filings available for free online, and nonprofits are required to provide the most recent forms when asked.

10. Middle and High School Graduate Offices

If your candidate is not widely known, this 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, accusations of cheating, or early political positions that are in contentious conflict with their current positions.

Now that you have some good research in hand, focus on framing. Put what you have learned into a context 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 constituents know her company has profited from government contracts? Did the city’s self-proclaimed spending watchdog campaign dump $4,000 on a fancy Italian restaurant? Look for contradictions in their public and private personalities.

Also look carefully at the relationships: a basic spreadsheet can help keep track of all the names. Did a developer that the nominee supported while on the zoning board then donate the maximum to their campaign or nonprofit?

You don’t need a single silver bullet to knock your opponent down in one shot. Often a series of small disclosures can be more helpful in raising ongoing 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: Tell your story with a zero dollar budget.