Oct 18, 2021

Unflattering headlines still have the power to change the outcome of a race, particularly in down-ballot contests where media coverage is limited.  

Preparing a response in advance, or even getting out in front of a negative story is ideal. But candidates aren’t always forthcoming, even to their own teams, about old lawsuits, unflattering social media posts, and embarrassing yearbook photos. 

That’s why it’s worth investing in research before a campaign is launched. It’s one of the first four steps a candidate should take:  


Perform inoculation research. 

Inoculation research or a vulnerability study “inoculates” a candidate against future attacks by addressing the candidate’s shortcomings. You can’t go back in time and take off that questionable Halloween costume, but you can hire an opposition researcher to identify anything else voters might perceive as negative. 

Some candidates know what’s in their past. In this case, inoculation allows the candidate to pinpoint the extent of a problem. Is there photographic evidence? How quickly could a reporter find it? 

Most candidates worry they’ve forgotten about minor incidents that can turn into major campaign roadblocks: Have you paid your property taxes on time? Do you vote regularly? Is your resume accurate? 

Seemingly innocuous pieces of information can be used to tell voters you are irresponsible, lazy, and deceptive.

Legal histories are the easiest way to ding candidates as anything from speeding tickets to divorce records to unpaid debts are public record. But your entire web history is also up for grabs, even content that has long since been deleted (like the embarrassing blog posts my wife wrote when she was 17). 

Information tells a story. What candidates and issues have you supported? Who have you given money to? Donation histories are a common hit, especially in a primary. But the No. 1 piece of information that can destroy a campaign? Residency.

Many political offices have residency requirements of at least one year. Being disqualified because you didn’t meet the basic requirement to run may be the most embarrassing way to lose an election. 


Clean up your social media.

Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Reddit or Tik Tok, they’re all fair game. 

Party and drinking photos, political rants, racist and homophobic commentary are common negative finds. But it’s not just what you say, it’s what you like. Do you follow porn stars on Instagram? Have you ever retweeted anything that could be considered offensive? Are you a Facebook fan of divisive people and organizations?

Take time to review both your profiles and the profiles of friends and family. Their content is also susceptible. Consider the photo your best friend posted of you passed out at your birthday party—a good researcher will find it. And when it comes to accounts you created in your younger years, sometimes it’s just better to delete and start fresh. Bear in mind, it may not completely disappear. Much of what you’ve already put online has been archived and is accessible using the dark web. In fact, your old Myspace account is probably still floating around. 


Establish what makes you different from your opponent.

Very few people like the idea of running a negative campaign, but the goal of any election is to prove you’re the best person for the job, and that means proving the other guy is the wrong person. Your opponent may be a Harvard educated philanthropist-environmentalist, but as sure as you have an unpaid parking ticket, your opponent’s record is less than spotless. 

Knowing your own record will let your media consultants find where to create contrast. The key to any campaign is contrast. 


Help decide if public service is right for you.

Occasionally, after doing an initial round of inoculation, candidates decide they’d rather let sleeping dogs lie. Violence toward women, child abuse, or serious financial instability tends to outweigh a candidate’s positive qualities. 

But in most cases, no skeleton is too grave to call off a campaign. There’s no shortage of officeholders with less than stellar personal and public records. That’s because things like bar fights, bankruptcy, DUIs, and late tax payments are easily offset with strategic campaign messaging. 

Take a candidate who was arrested in his twenties for assault. The candidate’s response to a voter asking about the mugshot that appeared in his opponent’s campaign literature might be, “When I was younger, I didn’t know how to control my anger. Now, I volunteer with at-risk youths teaching conflict resolution skills.” 

No one expects you to be perfect. It may be embarrassing to confront your past, but you’ll likely find voters respect you for it. 


Ethan Todd is an opposition researcher and Vice President & Senior Partner at Capitol City Research.  

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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