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Lessons in Vetting: Don’t Just Google Your Candidate

March 3, 2021

Lessons In Vetting: Don’t Just Google Your Candidate
Campaigns & Elections
February 26, 2021
By Luke Marchant, BSG Vice President

Everyone has a story about a lesson learned the hard way. Tell me if this sounds familiar. I had a candidate that was smart, young, and ambitious. They could articulate their policy positions – and the reasons for them – in a way that built a relationship with the voters, a trait not all new politicians have.

This natural ability to connect with voters made me optimistic, even though the primary was going to be tough, our money was tight, and we were all fighting for the same local endorsements. My confidence only grew after meeting with the editorial board of the biggest local paper where they clinched the endorsement. Then about a day later, I got the phone call: “endorsement rescinded.”

Though I’d done my basic due diligence through a Google search, I admittedly hadn’t done a deep dive on the candidate. I had taken over the campaign when the branding had already been done, literature printed and distributed, all the foundational pieces put in place. Everything looked great and sounded wonderful.

Unfortunately, everything was built on lies. By trusting the verification of others and doing only minimal checks, I had missed several (now) glaring gaps and inconsistencies in their story. I spent months cleaning up the mess, my relationship with some key donors was weathered, and my reputation with the media in that area had been strained. 

Learn from my mistake. Called “vulnerability reports” in the campaign world, vetting your candidate just as vigorously as you vet your opposition lets you know what fights are coming before they even arise. They allow you to respond to what constituents care about most – both the issues that will drive their decision to vote, and for whom, and what about your clients they’ll find most interesting. In practice, these reports give you the ability to control the flow of information, the news cycle, and the direction of the election itself.

So where do you start? Federal committees and some state parties keep whole research departments trained in more than “just Googling it.” These analysts aren’t practitioners of the dark arts. They use primary sourced, publicly available information to find out what’s real – not just what’s rumored or (perhaps falsely) reported out. If your budget allows, bringing in a professional firm with just-such-trained researchers can save you time, effort, and your hair in the long run. I highly recommend this.

But where are those researchers looking? If everything they find is publicly available, why can’t you just Google it? While it depends on the question, every campaign needs a sense of the following:

The candidate’s real resume

Simply relying on an individual’s LinkedIn profile is relying on information they want you to know – you will need to go a bit deeper. Smart campaigns build out independent timelines of what a candidate was doing when, and where. Not only will you be able to prepare narratives for any period of your candidate’s life, but you’ll be able to respond in real time to any false information others may attempt to peddle.

Their social media footprint

From Neera Tanden to Sarah Palin to Anthony Weiner, what a political figure shares online matters. But simply scrolling through their Twitter account might not give you a sense of your candidate’s problematic statements. Twitter’s native Advanced Search tool allows you to look for tweets from a specific account that include specific words and phrases or even interactions with other accounts. It even lets you restrict to certain time periods so you can see how your candidate responded (or didn’t) to a certain event when it happened. Don’t forget to look at what they have “liked” as well.

Where they’ve given money

People give money to lots of different entities. The Federal Elections Committee and the different state ethics commissions can only clue you into a candidate’s federal and state giving. You can also find other local giving at FollowTheMoney.org, a free database that compiles giving to local, state, and federal entities. But your candidate may have made non-political contributions – to foundations, charities, and so on – that you’ll need to know about, before local media does, and the only way to know that is having a direct conversation with your candidate.

Do they live where they’re running?

Opposition researchers tell me the first thing they check for is whether a candidate actually lives in the district or state in which they’re running for office. And having a property in the area isn’t enough. The easiest “hit” to research is proving a candidate’s “homestead” (as in, primary residence reported to the IRS) is not in the place where s/he is running to represent.

These are the easy steps. The real vulnerability studies take investment and include hard, straightforward, and honest conversations with your candidate. Those awkward talks can uncover something that you can prepare for, instead of it nuking several news cycles or – in a worst-case scenario – your whole campaign. Avoiding these catastrophes is what you’re hired for.

Luke Marchant is a VP at Bullpen Strategy Group.