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Opposition research: When is the right time for a campaign to attack their opponents?

This time of year before an upcoming spring primary election, I get asked a lot, “When are we going to see some opposition research dropped from campaigns?”

Long-term strategy during a political campaign can be a fragile thing knowing when to start and complete certain tasks. It’s an easy decision to have a campaign web site early on. It’s easy to decide that raising money early on is crucial to getting the campaign off on a solid foundation. Hiring staff and consultants is done early and adding more throughout the campaign is an easy call to make. When to open a campaign office and getting volunteers is also an easy decision to make. However, timing is everything, especially when it comes to knowing when to drop a piece of opposition research on an opponent. If a campaign uses what they have too early and in the wrong way, they run the risk of it leaving the voters’ minds in advance of Election Day. If a campaign waits too long, voters can turn off any information because towards the end of a long campaign season, voters get tired of all the ads and revolt against any and all campaign happenings.

As a veteran opposition research consultant, I have been involved in well over 100 political campaigns over a span of 28 years, and have seen about all there is to see regarding opposition research and there is no concrete answer as to when a campaign should drop a piece of oppo on an opponent. Every campaign is different and having people on the team that know from experience when oppo should be dropped helps, but still isn’t a guaranteed way to know when to release the information.

These are some of the factors that go into the decision of when to release opposition research:

  1. If your campaign is hanging on by a thread: If your candidate has damaging opposition research on any other candidate who is even or above them in the polls, releasing the information can turn a campaign around and give it life due to the attention they will get once the oppo is released to the public. Holding information “for later” many times is never used because your candidate doesn’t make it until Election Day. If you have it, use it.
  2. If you are being attacked by an opponent: The old saying, “Fight fire with fire,” applies here. It could be deemed school-yard antics, but if your candidate is getting ravaged by another campaign, one way to stop it or at least slow it down is to release your own opposition research on the candidate that is attacking you. Many think that this sort of behavior turns off voters, but in reality, it works.
  3. To raise money: Donors love to see a candidate who will fight and will reward them accordingly if they feel that they have something to say and can win. Releasing opposition research on opponents can make some donors think twice about who they will support especially if what you have on an opponent is quite damaging to their campaign. Remember that an overwhelming majority of possible donors don’t have access to the information that you do, so releasing it to the public makes sense in a financial standpoint.
  4. To bake it in: If your campaign has incredible opposition research especially on the perceived front-runner, that in your opinion can dramatically affect the outcome of the race, releasing it early in the campaign season and hammering it daily can serve to “bake it in,” the voters’ minds.
  5. To drive the last nail in a coffin of an opponent: If one of your main opponents’ campaign is losing steam, some consultants like to do all they can to knock them out of the race by piling on with opposition research. Other consultants like to stay out of it and allow the opponent to slowly descend in the polls and drop out when the money dries up. I have found that both are credible strategies, however, if you want to use a boxing analogy, when you have an opponent on the ropes, you go for the knock-out and don’t back off in order to give him time to catch his second breath.
  6. Being the last word: For years, consultants have believed that all opposition research should be released a few days before Election Day. Their thought process was that if they waited that deep into the campaign season to release information, their opponent wouldn’t have time to adequately answer the attacks. That thinking has become antiquated due to the 24-hour news cycle that we currently live. Candidates have the ability now to answer attacks via a number of social media platforms, by talk radio appearances, and doing their own TV ads that answer the attacks. Technology and social media has changed the world and certainly has had a dramatic effect on political campaigns as well.

One thing is for sure, opposition research is always going to be used as a strategy and campaigns who know how to gather it and when and how to use it correctly can mean the difference between winning and losing a campaign.

Brad Presnall is a veteran Alabama-based political opposition and vulnerability research consultant. He can be contacted at bpresnall@hotmail.com.