In the rough-and-tumble world of political campaigning, it is vital to know the Achilles’ heels of your candidates just as thoroughly as potential weaknesses of the opposition, even more in our time of rampant (dis)information.
This is where background checks and vulnerability reports come in. Rigorous vetting of your candidates enables you to anticipate potential issues before they can become real problems, allowing you to control your campaign’s direction and stay ahead of the game.
While some parties have professional departments or contractors at their disposal, conducting your own research using publicly available information can also be entirely feasible. But you will need to dig deeper than just LinkedIn profiles. Let’s find out what this means in practice.
Firstly, scrutinise your candidate’s CV thoroughly. Relying on what they present to the public won’t cut it. Independent timelines of what your candidate was doing when, where, with whom will help you prepare for any period of their life and respond promptly to any accusations or false information that may arise.
Ahead of the German general elections in 2021, the credibility of Green frontrunner Annalena Baerbock began to crack after her campaign had responded poorly to controversies about her resume. Plagiarism accusations caused the biggest outcry, as a book she had published ahead of her run contained passages from other works without mentioning sources.
Baerbock rejected accusations of cheating, explaining it was a matter of generally known facts that did not have to be quoted – notably, through her lawyer. What was not clarified: If she had copied parts from the sources in question. Instead, the Green campaign decided to go against the certified reviewer who had made the story public, accusing him of “character assassination”.
“Baerbock lost a great deal of credibility,” attested communication expert Frank Brettschneider. “It’s not about the individual points, but about the overall impression that comes across to the voter: someone lacks integrity.” And there has also been criticism of her campaign: The Greens should have known that her life will be scrutinised and prepared accordingly at an early stage.
Secondly, you will need to investigate candidates’ social media footprints. Simply scrolling through their Twitter and Facebook accounts won’t be enough, though. Although slightly intrusive, asking candidates to share passwords so vetters can comb through years of posts, comments, and maybe even messages, could later on prove invaluable.
Thirdly, examine financial data and search for potential conflicts of interest. And look not only at income sources, but also investigate where your candidate has given money, including any non-political contributions to foundations or charities. In 2016, for example, it was revealed that Donald Trump had given money to the Clinton Foundation in the past. His campaign then had to address this retrospectively.
Finally, it is essential to confirm that candidates are registered where they are running. What properties candidates own where and whether their primary residence is in the district or state they’re running to represent are among the first things most opposition researchers check.
Please bear in mind that these are only the most important initial actions, which you can simply do yourself. Comprehensive vetting and vulnerability research takes several months and a lot of (financial) investment.
In any case, however, reliable background files necessitate honest, tough and straightforward talks with candidates. Unpleasant as this may be, such conversations uncover noteworthy issues you are able to prepare for, preventing them from jeopardising your project.
As a political manager, it is your job to stay one step ahead of the competition – and that begins with knowing your candidate inside and out, including any ugly or awkward stuff.