Archive for June, 2009

Opposition Research - The Misunderstood Art of Political Campaigns

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Probably the most misunderstood aspect of campaigning is opposition research.   For many, it is synonymous with “digging up dirt.”   Without question, if there is dirt to dig, opposition research should find it.


But real opposition research is more about finding information that will help voters reach conclusions about the candidates’ character, integrity and fitness for office.
 

Real opposition research has two functions:  research the opposition and research youself.   First, forget the cloak and dagger aspects of op research.  An opposition researcher’s  real work is done on-line, in libraries and at courthouses plodding through dusty records, old newspapers and whatever Google™ can find floating through cyberspace.
 

Without question, the opposition researcher is looking for past behavior that highlights an opponent’s lack of character, judgment and integrity.   After all, past performance may indicate future conduct in office.

That’s why the first person you should research is you.  Google yourself.   You may be astonished by the personal information that is stuck to the worldwide web for anyone to reach out and grab. 

In one recent campaign, we found some deadly information about a candidate.   Where?  On his own Facebook page – complete with every picture we needed to persuade voters he wasn’t mature enough for public office.

Assume that anything you can find about yourself can be easily found by your opponent.  Few issues are automatically fatal if they are managed properly during a campaign.

The worst thing that happens to a campaign is to be unprepared for an attack based on something the candidate knows or should have known was in his/her past.   Good op research will discover what is discoverable about you and allow the campaign to prepare for it.

After cataloging potential avenues of personal attack, develop pre-determined responses and counterattacks to deal with them.    Have them already “in-the-can” so they can be dealt with immediately as they arise.
 

This is particularly true of incumbents.  The longer you serve in office the longer your voting record grows and the more public statements you’ve made.  You probably forgot that bill, ordinance or resolution you co-sponsored as a favor to a colleague.   Yet, it’s lurking out there in the public record with your name attached.
 

Every election cycle, incumbents should have someone re-evaluate their votes and public statements since the last election so the campaign can prepare responses about what you said or did, and why.   Ditto your personal life, too.
 

In an era of camera phones, who knows what incriminating, embarrassing or unexplainable photo may be out there.   Don’t be paranoid, but be cautious and be prepared.
 

Several years ago, an opponent attacked our candidate for failing to pay child support.   Within hours, our candidate’s ex-wife appeared at a press conference and blasted the opponent for exploiting her children for political gain.
 

We had researched our candidate, assumed this would be a potential attack and had discussed this ahead of time with the ex-wife.   The attack backfired and our candidate won.  Without this internal analysis, we would have been caught unprepared.
 

So, only after researching yourself should you look to your opponent.
 

First, opposition research isn’t about tracking down every rumor and innuendo that a campaign hears about its opponent.  If you waste time chasing rumors, you will likely miss the real information buried in some archive that sheds a factual light on your opponent’s character.
 

That doesn’t mean you ignore the inevitable chatter that occurs during a campaign, but you do need to focus on real, verifiable issues that truly matter to voters.   Not paying taxes, personal bankruptcies, divorces based on philandering, arrest records, failure to pay child support, abusing authority, and using office for personal gain do reflect on a candidate’s character, competence and fitness for office.   This information is the true substance of opposition research.
 

Second, family issues must be dealt with delicately – if at all.  Wives, children, parents and other relatives should be out of bounds unless there are highly compelling reasons to involve them.
 

As demonstrated by the earlier cited ex-wife’s reaction to a political attack, family matters - even seemingly legitimate issues – are fraught with danger.   Handle with care.    
 

Also, use professional opposition researchers with a history of success, an understanding of what really matters in a campaign and who can painstakingly document any information that they gather.
 

Any information gleaned from op research must be fully verifiable – preferably from multiple sources.   In the very first campaign in which I volunteered, the candidate used a newspaper clipping in a mailing.  The campaign made several inferences about the published information that may have been accurate, but were difficult to verify.
 

Within days, the campaign faced a $1.5 million libel suit.  Though it was eventually dismissed at trial, it still cost the candidate thousands in legal fees and some unpleasant publicity.  We won the primary, but lost the war – the general election – due to the libel trial’s recurring publicity.
 

Also, avoid hiring a private detective.  Since you must disclose all campaign expenditures, the detective agency will turn up on your disclosures.   If you pay someone to tail your opponent surreptitiously it can be easily spun by the media and your opponent as underhanded campaigning.   This doesn’t apply to video or audio taping an opponent in an open meeting, but to snooping through the windows, trash or other easily misunderstood invasion of privacy.

At least one candidate I consulted with hired a private detective without informing me.  He wanted video proof of activities that were eating at him, but that, in the big picture, didn’t matter.  When the two individuals being tailed discovered their privacy had been violated, they went justifiably ballistic.  Not only did it waste campaign resources – money and candidate time – it backfired.
 

A professional opposition researcher would have understood that the things getting under the candidate’s skin had no relevance to voters.   A professional researcher also would have brought the candidate’s request to my attention so we could have dealt with his unwise fixations.


Finally, once you have documented evidence that reflects on an opponent’s character, integrity or fitness for office, the campaign must decide how to use it.   Three things matter:  relevance, tone and accuracy.
 

Polling the data will help determine its relevancy.   Testing the message with real voters, not campaign insiders, will help set the proper tone.   Documenting the information completely will take care of accuracy.

Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

Yard Sign Strategy
Managing a Campaign Essential.

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Political yard signs are a necessary tool for any size campaign to boost name ID and keep the campaign constantly visible to voters. The biggest challenge for yard signs is poor design.

 
The typical yard sign is 18 x 24-inches and are viewed in automobiles at between 25 and 65 miles per hour at between 25 and 100 feet away. So, your first consideration is to make sure the name is readable under those conditions. What looks good up close may be absolutely unreadable in real-world yard sign campaign conditions.

Anything that diverts or restricts the readability and visibility of the candidate’s name must be avoided. That also means not trying to cram every bit of campaign information (date of election, district number, pictures, etc.) on the sign: only name and office usually work best.

Preferably you should use a professional graphics designer to create your signs – one with experience in designing campaign signs. Look at your proposed sign designs from a distance to ensure it can be comprehended in real world conditions. (Check out the signs created by Robert Simmons, our art director, elsewhere on our website and you’ll see what makes great yard sign design).

Color Scheme: The most common colors for political signs are red, white & blue because they evoke images of patriotism and the colors are highly visible. Unfortunately, using these colors can make every sign look alike so they simply blend into the background scenery instead of being noticed. Don’t be afraid to use other colors as long as they are good, strong colors that are highly visible. Use the same color scheme in all campaign communications.

Once your signs are effectively designed, you can start putting your sign strategy together, including where your signs should be placed and when.
Obey the Law: Voters are frustrated by candidates who want to make laws, but break them during their campaigns. Many cities and counties have ordinances that govern yard signs and when they may be posted, so check to make sure your campaign complies with the regulations in each jurisdiction within your district.

Typically, unless there is a strategic or financial reason, yard signs should go up soon as legally possible. Avoid putting signs in highway rights-of-ways and other prohibited areas, so figure out what the law allows and stay within the law. Finally, make sure you always have the landowner’s permission to put a sign on the property. 



Sign Placement: Obviously, the more visible locations are best, so your first priority should be major thoroughfares and high traffic areas in your district. Place fewer signs in areas that you know you won’t win and more signs in areas where there are more favorable swing voters.

Too many candidates ignore neighborhoods. That’s a huge mistake. For every sign legally placed in someone’s yard, you can expect approximately 6-10 votes to result. Uncommitted voters look in their neighbor’s yard and say, “If the Smiths are supporting him/her, they must be a good candidate.” It’s a powerful endorsement that reverberates throughout a neighborhood.



Party Affiliation: Earlier, we mentioned that name and office are the only two items that should go on your sign. One exception is in highly partisan areas, putting your party affiliation may be important. Using party affiliation is terrific if the district is highly Republican, but not so good if Republicans are in the minority.

Candidate Pictures: The answer is “No.”

Campaign slogans: Again, no. Put it on the mail, the ads and other campaign materials, but not the sign.

Getting Sign Locations: I wish there was a simple way to get sign locations. The only way I have found is “to ask.” When going door-to-door, I gauged the receptivity of the voter and after I did my initial presentation and they had committed to vote for me, I upped the ante. If they indicated support, the next thing was to ask for a sign. About half the time, I was successful. You can work the phones and call landowners at major intersections or use your phone volunteers to ask for signs when they are making advocacy calls.
How do I make my signs last: Today, political yard signs are printed on highly durable material and should maintain their visibility throughout any campaign. Avoid saving money on cheap cardboard signs because rain and sun destroy them and you’ll waste a lot of time and money replacing cheap signs. No matter how many yard signs you put up, some will disappear.

Sign stealing is as old as politics. The most common cause of sign removal is the land owner removing them to cut grass and failing to put them back up.

Look for locations in the yard that are visible from the road, but where landscaping maintenance is not so regular. In suburban yards, most homeowners have a planting area that has flowers and shrubs. Putting your sign in that area may keep it visible and the owners won’t have to move it every time they cut the grass.

Regardless, you must have a plan to replace signs on a regular basis, especially in your key targeted areas.
 

Sign Team: Recruit a couple of volunteers – or pay someone – to put up your signs. Once the signs are up, the sign team should regularly ride the district to ensure they remain up and replace any that are missing.

Signs are an essential component of every campaign. Effectively managing that facet of the campaign is one of the most critical aspects of your candidacy.

 Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com.

Effectively Using Digital Messaging In Your Political Campaign

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Political campaigns are relying more each election cycle on email, texting, blogs, Facebook™, Twitter™, MySpace™, Linkedin™ and a host of other emerging social networking technologies in their voter contact, fundraising, volunteer, get-out-the-vote and other aspects of their campaigns. Digital messaging is seen as the next great frontier in campaigns, particularly in light of Barack Obama’s and Ron Paul’s success in mobilizing grassroots activists and raising dollars in the 2008 elections.
 

Before wading into the complexities of subject lines, message content, image-to-text ratios, email metrics and other the like, first consider how email and text messages should and shouldn’t be used. Also, candidates need to understand the cost comparison with other media and to have reasonable expectations regarding outcomes. 

Spamming is the bain of the digital messaging world.

Too many of us spend a large portion of our day tossing out the digital junk mail cluttering our in-boxes. Somehow it seems even more frustrating than the robocalls, advocacy calls, TV spots and the campaign mail that also clutters the lives of voters.
 

So, just because political messages are protected by the First Amendment and political emails and text messages are not subject to the Federal CAN-SPAM Act, doesn’t mean you can – or should – litter Cyberspace with your campaign messages. Given their high irritation factor, you can offend potential voters by inundating them with messages they prefer not to receive.
 

That’s why campaigns are relying more and more on opt-in lists, whether its their own or lists purchased from a third-party of individuals who express an interest in receiving political communications.
 

Every campaign should have a plan to gather email and text message data at every opportunity - by capturing email addresses on the campaign website, at rallies, in door-to-door canvassing, during fund raising and in advocacy mail and phone calls.
 

Smart campaigns now dedicate a portion of its resources on digital voter file development because the ultimate payoff is so high.
 

Before purchasing a third-party list, make sure you get a chance to test it to ensure that it is accurate. If you get a lot of returns, the list may be too old to be effective. The third party should be credible and dependable and willing to fix any problems with their lists at no cost to the campaign.
 

But relying solely on opt-in and third-party lists also handicaps campaigns in developing and growing their email and text message data bases. So, is there an alterative?
 

More and more campaigns are adapting direct mail or telemarketing fundraising techniques to build a file. Campaigns and political parties are constantly doing prospect mailing and telemarketing. They contact individuals based on demographic data or microtargeting techniques seeking permission to contact them digitally. Just as smart campaigns are always prospecting for dollars, they are now prospecting for email and text messaging information to generate low-cost voter contact opportunities. 



Also, campaigns that share geographical boundaries can also do list swaps. How does a list swap work? Two groups share their digital lists and each group can prospect a specific number of times – usually once or twice – on the other’s list. The campaign must contact the names on the swapped list to get permission to communicate with them, but it should be a rich lode of names to mine since they have already opted to receive political information from another source.
 

Digital messaging is an effective, low-cost means of communicating during a campaign. It also allows supporters to expand your reach by effortlessly sending out your information to their email networks, too. It allows campaigns to effectively tap into the growing viral marketing phenomenon. 



Whether you are a low-budget campaign or one with plenty of resources, digital messaging allows you to tap a wider audience more frequently at less cost than any other communications medium.

  

Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

The Likeability Factor in Politics

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009
Why did Barack Obama beat John McCain? Why did Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter? Why did Bill Clinton, with all his baggage, beat Bob Dole? Ditto George W. Bush over Al Gore and John Kerry.Chalk it up to something called “the likeability factor.”

Not long ago, the New York Times asked me to contribute to a post-election op-ed series on that year’s campaign. I wrote about the likeability factor while thinking about a couple of candidates who had everything in their favor except a likable personality. Of course, they lost.

In that article, I wrote that “if voters like you, they will cut you a lot of slack. If they don’t like you, they won’t even forgive your good points.”

Some argue that likeability is one of life’s intangibles. Candidates either have it or they don’t. You can’t teach it. You can learn it. I’m not so sure. Alcoholics and drug addicts change and reform, why not sour people?
Nixon didn’t have it. Lyndon Johnson didn’t either. Yet, they were somehow able to fake it for awhile. In 1964, Johnson had the advantage of the Kennedy aura and an opponent who, outside those hardcore true-believing conservatives, obviously wasn’t too likeable either as far as 60% of the voters were concerned. By 1968, his lack of likeability made Johnson a goner.

Likeability is more than Reagan’s sense of humor and timing. More than Bill Clinton’s good ole boy persona and even more than George Bush’s awshucks self-deprecating personality.

Likeability engenders loyalty. In politics, you need friends and staff who are loyal, dedicated and who tell you the truths that other people won’t tell you. Likeability involves treating people well while also respecting and appreciating their opinions – even if you think they are wrong.

Likeability inspires trust and confidence. It’s the ability to laugh and smile. For years, Congressman Bob (Impeachment Bob) Barr’s wife Jere kept telling him to smile more on TV. Bob’s response? “I am smiling.”

In private, Bob Dole may have been America’s funniest politician. On the stump, his dour “quit lying about my record” demeanor was a killer.

Likeability is the trait that makes other people want to be around you. It requires you to genuinely care about people – or at least pay attention to them. In a group setting, some candidates are too busy scoping out the room trying to spot the important people to notice the people with whom they are allegedly conversing.

Lady Thatcher was not Britain’s most loveable leader, yet twice I had the up-close chance to watch her work a crowd. She was the most polished one-on-one politician I ever met.

She spent about two-three minutes with each person she met. For those few minutes you and she were the only people in the room. Then, she gracefully disengaged and connected with the next individual, who now became the only other person there. You left not just having an encounter, but believing you had a relationship.

Before becoming a candidate, check out your likeability index. Ask people you trust to tell you frankly and honestly about your likeability. Listen carefully to what they say and ask them what could be done to make yourself more likeable.

Of course, if you’re not a very likeable person, you may not like what you hear. Your reaction, then, would explain why you aren’t as likeable as you need to be.

The Psychology Behind Voter Decisions

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009
Too few political candidates truly understand the psychology and mental/emotional processes voters use to make voting decisions. The more you understand about the process people go through in deciding how to vote, the more likely your campaign will be successful.In essence, there are five primary factors that drive voter decision-making.  

The voter knows the candidate. Whenever I run, there is one vote I can count on. My mother. I am her baby boy. She is proud of me. She wants me to succeed and she will support anything I choose to do.

Likewise, one vote I will never get is my opponent’s mother. She will vote for her baby boy or girl for the exact same reasons my mother will vote for me.

Everyone else in the electoral universe is on a curve between those two poles. So, the more people you know, the more likely you are to win. Why? Personal knowledge and acquaintance with the candidate typically trumps everything else, unless, of course, what people know about you from personal acquaintance is negative.

Yet, if you are the typical person with the normal amount of likeability, even people who disagree with you politically will often vote for you because they “know” you. They will overlook differences because they consider you an honest, hardworking individual with good judgment and integrity.

Unless you live in a small town or the district you are seeking is relatively compact, developing a personal relationship with every potential constituent is a daunting, if nigh impossible, task. However, the most successful candidates are adept at forming a wide range of personal relationships that can also be leveraged for electoral success. Friends and relatives all have individual networks and voters can get to “know” you vicariously through those who actually “know” you.

The strongest campaign is one where voters “know” or think they “know” the candidate.

An Issue. The most powerful force in politics is an idea. It is also the rarest commodity in politics. It is why so many campaigns degenerate into mudslinging. In the absence of a good or great idea to inspire voters, the candidates simply attack each other hoping to survive a war of attrition.

Some candidates and campaign consultants specialize in attack campaigns because they lack the capacity for original thought. Attack campaigns do work, but a powerful idea that motivates voters is the strongest defense against opponent with an attack strategy.

Most campaigns rely on concepts that are more labels than ideas. Lower taxes. Pro-life. Pro Choice. Education. Job creation. Solving congestion. Fixing roads. These are what political scientists call “valence” issues, which are policy positions with near universal or at least significant voter support.

These well-worn ideas drive most campaigns because developing unique solutions to difficult public policy issues is hard, risky work.

Yet, if you can catch the zeitgeist and latch on to an idea that a large group of people can rally around, you can transform a campaign into an irresistible force.

Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller did it with his idea to use a state lottery to provide college scholarships for top high school students who attended in-state colleges and universities. Frankly, people voted for the lottery not because of education, but because they believed Zell would make them rich.

Also, from a public policy perspective, the reverse Robin Hood nature of the program – taking from the poor to educate the rich – left a lot to be desired. But it worked as a campaign tactic.

Issues can be local. During my tenure in the Georgia Senate, I tapped into a growing discontent against a proposed new road through a highly developed region to lead a popular revolt that blocked the project. Thousands of people turned out at community meetings across the three counties.

Jack Kemp transformed the Republican Party with his idea – adopted by Ronald Reagan – of a 33% across the board tax cut and an intellectual foundation for low taxes as good economic and public policy. Before Kemp, the GOP was seen as the tax collector for the welfare state since it had always insisted on raising taxes to pay for New-Deal-Great-Society-era projects.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good idea. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of generating unique ideas. Yet, don’t let the difficulty deter you.

Partisan Identity: In the absence of a personal relationship or a transforming idea, the third driver influencing voter decisions is the candidate’s partisan affiliation.

Individuals typically form their political identities in their late teens and early twenties. Barring some cataclysmic event, that identity stays with them for a lifetime. It doesn’t mean that if you voted Democrat at 18 you will vote Democratic at 98.

Remember Churchill’s aphorism: if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.

People do change and evolve. However, a person’s basic political ideology and outlook is formed in those developmental years and they consistently tend to vote for the party or candidate who identifies with those values.
Partisan affiliation offers voters a clue to the general philosophical and public policy inclinations of the candidate. While officeholders don’t always live up to the expectations, voters assume Republican candidates are less likely to raise taxes, more likely to oppose broad government intrusion or intervention into the private sector, put more emphasis on individual over societal rights and to rely more on private sector solutions than government-based programs.

Meanwhile, Democrats are seen to believe government should have a more vigorous role in society and that government is the instrument society uses to deal with broad based problems and challenges. In the absence of more information, voters used these “brands” to decide which candidates to “buy.”

In a primary campaign, partisan identity is a wash. You may argue who is the better Republican or Democrat – but it’s not really a factor since Republican leaning voters will be in the GOP primary and visa-versa with the Dems.

Partisan identity plays a bigger role in general elections and the partisan voting history of a district or state is a major factor in a party nominee’s ability to win.

Met the Candidate: This is different than “knowing” the candidate. To know the candidate is to have, at some level, a personal relationship with the candidate. Meeting the candidate is much more ephemeral.

This is why blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other emerging on-line social networks are evolving as powerful campaign tools. Candidates can efficiently and almost effortlessly “meet” large numbers of people – if the campaign is properly organized to move a candidate effectively through Cyberspace.

Social networks let campaigns confronting big chunks of real estate or a large mass of voters adapt highly-affective, traditionally-local, grassroots campaign tactics, like door-to-door canvassing, to congressional, statewide and national candidacies. Instead of walking through neighborhoods to meet voters, social networks allows candidates to coalesce the politically aware and interested into an on-line neighborhood with an unlimited number of “meeting” opportunities.

However, if your campaign involves relatively compact areas, old-fashioned grassroots tactics still can’t be beaten when it comes to really meeting voters. Wherever possible, candidates should combine high tech meetings with high touch meetings in the real world where voters live and engage them at their doorsteps.

In city council, small town, suburban and urban legislative races, nothing is more effective than door-to-door canvassing to give voters an opportunity to “meet” the candidate.

Door-to-door canvassing is the most grueling form of campaigning and typically only the most committed candidates will do it. Yet, the candidate who commits three-four hours a day and more on weekends to door-to-door work is almost unbeatable – again, barring scandal or other major snafu.

It’s also good for your health. I haven’t seen a candidate yet who didn’t lose 10-30 pounds during an effective door-to-door campaign.

Voters usually are very gratified that a candidate is willing to come to them and personally ask for their vote. If you can’t – or won’t – do door-to-door, show up at every club, church, synagogue, PTA and other gathering that offers opportunities for candidates to “meet” voters.

Name Recognition: This is the least powerful factor in a voter’s decision, but it trumps an opponent who has none. If your strategy is simply to build name ID, you are very susceptible to a candidate who undertakes aggressive voter contact and/or idea-based campaigns.

Unfortunately, this is where most campaigns focus their energies. Mail. Signs. Newspaper Ads. TV and Radio Spots. Websites. These are essential to any campaign.

Yet, any campaign that relies totally on these tools is basing their efforts on the least effective tactics. Some campaigns – particularly races with a lot of territory and large numbers of voters are almost always limited to campaigns built around image building and name recognition strategies.

Yet, a local candidate who relies solely on name recognition to win races is a lazy candidate and will probably be a lazy officeholder. It can be done. It is done regularly. But the most successful campaigns are those which blend all five voter motivators into an effective campaign.