Run for Office Tip #6: Know Your Opponent

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Know your opponent

In the fall of 2011, I was invited to join a campaign four weeks before a primary in a limited capacity. On a day when we were doing debate preparation, I asked the candidate’s staff for a copy of the opposition research file. I needed to see the opponent’s voting record and a transcript of the public statements he’d made during his long career in public life. The response I received when I asked for the file was telling. Blank stares from his campaign staff. The file did not exist. No one had done any research. No one knew anything about our primary opponent.

It was a fatal mistake. For as it turned out, there was plenty of information available that could have been used to derail the opponent’s campaign. The staff never knew it because they did not do their homework.

Don’t let that happen to you.

In any campaign, you want to know everything you can about your opponent, for the same reason that companies keep track of everything their competitors are doing. If you don’t, shame on you.

Never assume your opponent’s biography is error free or absent embellishment. Check the veracity of everything they say, every degree they claimed to have earned, every organization they claim to have led. Read their position statements and look for inconsistencies, or factual mistakes. Know them better than they know themselves. That does not require a private investigator…just a little time on Google and a few phone calls.

I was once involved in a race where the opponent of my client claimed to have earned two degrees from the U.S. Naval academy. He’d held public office for years, and no one ever questioned that claim…until he ran for Congress. When I contacted the Naval academy to check the veracity of his bio, I learned that he had never graduated, and had left the academy after his first semester. That Masters degree in Computer Science he claimed to have earned? The Naval Academy offers no such degree. Needless to say, his campaign blew up and he never made it to Congress.

It would seem a dumb mistake and it was. It would seem a dumb mistake that a veteran political figure would know not to make. But he did.

And this is why. It is very difficult for would be candidates to resist the temptation to inflate, embellish or exaggerate their record or accomplishments. We hear about it all the time. Candidates claiming degrees they never earned. Candidates claiming to belong to or to have led organizations they didn’t. Members of Congress claiming credit for bills they never wrote, or passage of legislation they have never seen.

Sometimes it is not an outright lie, but a pattern of embellishment that will snag a candidate. In 2009 I read of a candidate for Congress who claimed to have been a been a high-ranking pentagon official during the Iraq War. A Google search revealed her tweets to a one time boyfriend, in which she described the position as an unpaid internship. That alone did not end her campaign, but it did make me suspicious of other claims she was making about her background and accomplishments. Upon further investigation I found that it was indeed a pattern, to which I alerted a local reporter. During his first interview, it did not take the reporter long to catch the pattern, which he dutifully covered in his story. Her campaign crashed before she got to the starting gate.

In the pre-internet age we used to say that campaigns were won and lost in the library. Today, you don’t need to go to the library. Just go on line and look. And make a few phone calls. It’s often the difference between winning and losing.

Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.

How to win an election:

Running for office and knowing how to win an election is a challenge, especially for first time political candidates just learning how to run for office. Discerning the fine points of how to campaign, raise political contributions, and execute a political campaign strategy often requires the help of someone who has served as a political strategist or who has experience as a political consultant.

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