Politics & Society

What Is Candidate Research? How to Gather the Best Information on a Political Candidate

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 4 min read

“Everybody is gonna find out everything. By doing research on your own candidate, you're going to identify possible lines of attack that your opponent is going to use. And you can prepare for them. You can think through what might they say, how might they say it, and what ought to be your response.”—Karl Rove

In contemporary politics, those running for public office must face the reality of everything they’ve done and said will be unearthed by their opponents. While their opponents are conducting opposition research on them, their own campaign staff must conduct candidate research, so that they are as well informed about the candidate as their opponents are.

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What Is Candidate Research?

Candidate research is the process of researching a candidate to develop a full understanding of their experience, voting records, position on issues, and more. When those who work in professional politics talk about candidate research, they are referring to the research that a campaign manager or other staffer conducts on the candidate they work for. When voters talk about candidate research, they are referring to the activity voters undertake in deciding who they will support and ultimately vote for.

Political consultant and Chief Strategist for President Barack Obama, David Axelrod, describes the importance of candidate research:

“It’s essential to really understand who your candidate is—their biography, their record, what makes them tick, what's important to them, what they've done with their lives. You need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s particularly important, in my view, to know what their struggles have been, because everybody has struggles in their lives and those struggles define us.
Barack Obama lost his mother to cancer, and she had a horrendous time with her insurance company at the time of her illness. That really motivated him on the issue of healthcare, so when he talked about healthcare and we did an ad about it, he very much was thinking about his mother. In every candidate interaction I have at the beginning of a campaign, I try and find out not just about the good things that happen in people’s lives, but about the hard things that happen in their lives.
It's a delicate balance to deal with candidates in the information gathering period, because sometimes they're not completely forthcoming with you about their liabilities. Sometimes they just don't recognize them to be liabilities or they've forgotten. This was a lesson I learned, and you should never make the same mistake. I had a race where the candidate was good in many, many ways, except for one: he didn't vote on a regular basis. And after that moment—this was relatively early in my career—in every subsequent political campaign, the first thing that I checked about my own candidate was if they vote regularly, because if they don’t, it's deeply offensive to people. They don't want someone applying to lead the choir when they've never attended church. So you really want to check those things out.”

What Are the Best Ways to Research a Candidate?

You don't want to find out your candidate’s vulnerabilities from your opponent's opposition research. So, you need to know everything that they’ll uncover, before they uncover it.

  • Study their voting record. Looking at a candidate’s voting record is a good way of getting hard evidence of how they will govern in the future. How have they voted on key issues? Do they vote in line with their political party? How consistently do they show up and vote?
  • Interview them personally. David Axelrod recommends sitting down with your candidate, having a very long conversation, interviewing them about their lives, careers, and family. Learn what's important to them, and really get to know them as part of this process.
  • Research their financing. Take a look at where a political candidate receives their sources of funding, which may influence how a politician legislates once they get to Washington. Thoroughly researching the candidate's campaign finance history is important to untangle some of the underlying motivations they may have once in power.

Why Is it Important to Research Candidates and Politicians?

Candidate research serves different purposes depending on if you’re working on a campaign or simply trying to become a more informed voter. Some of the benefits of candidate research include:

  • Help you decide who to support: Whether you’re a voter, volunteer, or political staffer, candidate research is incredibly important to help you make an informed choice about which candidate to support. Political science and conventional wisdom holds that many voters vote based on personality or tribalism, but the more that voters can study candidates’ histories and research their political positions the more informed those voters will be when they step into the voting booth on election day.
  • Prepare you for debates: For campaign staff, candidate research is enormously important to help prepare a candidate for speeches or debates. The more that campaign managers can uncover about their candidates, the better they can prepare anything that might happen on the campaign trail.
  • Craft an authentic message: Knowing all of the facts of a candidate’s life can inform and add authenticity to their message. David Axelrod explains: “The elements of a strong message are: bio, record, and some projective language about where you want to go. People want authenticity, and you want to work within the framework of who someone is.” The more their campaign staff knows of their personal and professional triumphs, the more compelling this narrative will be.

Learn more about political campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.