When most people think of political campaign research, they’re thinking about polls. Polls cost thousands of dollars and tell you very little useful information, especially if you’ve already decided to run. And if you haven’t decided to run, why would you spend thousands on polling?
Polls are handy for candidates in large districts who want to pinpoint where their strongholds are. They are good for finding out what issues are striking a chord with your constituency. I’ve found that polls are a lot more useful and cost effective for interest groups that cover a significant geographic area, like a whole state or region of the country. Since they usually do more polling, it’s relatively cheaper (like buying in bulk), and they have more use for the general sort of information that’s culled in polling than an individual candidate would.
For most local and state legislature races, however, you can typically find the same information that a poll would without shelling out all that cash. You will, however, need to make a large investment of time – that’s why I recommend finding 1 or 2 academically minded volunteers to do most of the groundwork for you.
So what is ‘research’ in a small election? Some of that you’ll have to make up for yourself based on the particulars of your race and district, but for most, research consists of:
- Gathering past election data (at least 4 elections worth plus all the years in between).
- Learning as much as possible about your opponent, especially his personal background/biography and voting records (if he’s held office before).
- Gathering district info – demographics, geographic, precinct breakdowns, general history, current public opinion, etc.
This can all be done virtually for free, but there are tiny costs that can add up, and should be added to the equation for the total budget, so let’s take a look at each item and how much it may cost:
- Past election data, $0-100+: You should be able to go to the county courthouse or city building and either pay 10 cents per sheet to have all the data printed out for you (this is a major pain in the rear and could add up to $100+ depending on how big your district is) or pay $5-10 to get a CD of all the counties past election data and registered voter list. In most states counties are required to be able to provide all this data electronically, but often the funds to make that happen just aren’t there, or the county offices are simply behind the times. Oftentimes, however, past election data can be found online (but voter registration data can’t).
- Opponent research, $0, tons of time: Do not hire a private investigator or anything silly like that. Just Google the guy. Stop by his campaign headquarters and pick up his campaign bio. What he says about himself is more important information than who he really is anyway. Chances are, especially if your opponent is an incumbent, there will be a wealth of information online, for free.
- District research, $0-50, tons more time: A good free resource for district research is American FactFinder – this site takes all the latest census data and makes it available to the public to be used in a plethora of ways. My favorite feature is that you can make maps with it. You’ll spend hours on this site and learn a ton about the demographic and geo-political nature of your district. Other sources are the library – they usually have a special section dedicated to the social studies of your town – and newspapers and other local publications. You’ll need to read every local publication in your district, which may require you to pay for a few subscriptions.
Some well meaning person will probably tell you in the early planning stages that you’ll need to do a poll in order to craft your message, target voters, or something like that. Thank them kindly for the advice and then ask them for a donation to pay for it, but don’t do a poll.
If your race is really that interesting or heated that a poll is in order, someone else is already doing one on it. Media outlets do polls all the time because statistic numbers make great headlines, and interest groups will do polls as well to suss out whether they should bother giving you money or getting involved. While you should take the information from outside polls with several grains of salt (the questions are often biased and the polls aren’t often a true random sample, or even completely within your district), you can use these to gauge public opinion, to a degree.
You’ve probably realized by now that $200 is a fair budget for any small election when it comes to the research portion of your campaign budget, and you may even be able to save some of that money by using the free resources I’ve listed.