Many first time opposition researchers struggle with understanding how information they develop fits into campaign strategy. For some, the perceived goal is to find the smoking gun that will take the opponent out of the race. This rarely happens, the best you can hope for is to take the opponent off message and control the narrative. The more time the opponent is off message responding to serious questions the less voters hear the opponent telling them why they should get their vote.
As your campaign takes shape understanding the candidate’s positions, polling on those issues, framing the narrative, and creating the candidate’s message will be the objective. Ultimately the message should be synonymous with the candidate’s name. Messages and issues are time sensitive and can fade. Deciding when to introduce an issue during the campaign is crucial to building momentum and a strong finish. Creating a timeline for issues ensures the entire staff is on the same page and everyone is working toward the same goals.
Preferably, opposition researchers should be included in the early stages of developing the candidate’s message. They can help flesh out the candidate’s own positions with current data and learn what the campaign has identified as strategic issues through polling. Identifying strategic issues helps opposition researchers prioritize inquiries. Other important considerations involve knowing what exposure your own candidate has on issues and timing.
If your candidate has taken donations from a company accused of environmental violations then the fact your opponent has also received donations from the company is a non-issue. Knowing early what issues are off the table will help opposition researchers focus on valuable topics. Timing the release of information developed by researchers is tricky. Researchers and campaigns must resist the urge to get damaging information out right away. Releasing information early gives the opponent time to respond and deflect. Even serious accusations fade from voter minds. Releasing information late, or just before Election Day, may not give media enough time to fully investigate.
There are no steadfast rules on when to release potentially damaging opposition research. The exception may be that any information about an opponent’s dwindling finances or inability to raise campaign funds should be released quickly. The time when an opponent needs money the most can also be the time donors are reluctant to give. If donors believe the campaign is struggling financially they may not want to give to a lost cause.