How To: Find the Answers: Tactical and Strategic Research

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Strategic Research


Strategic research enables an organization to plan a strategy and evaluate the use of timing, action, and resources so it can focus its maximum strength against the weakness of the opposition. This definition holds true for a community struggling to prevent its destruction as well as for organizers in an electoral campaign.

Strategic research applies to an electoral setting in at least two specific arenas: when a candidate is running for any office and when citizens are organizing to have legislation passed or killed.

A strategy for elections and legislation includes several elements:

A plan is an orderly, methodical approach which provides a yardstick to evaluate progress and which aids the strategic use of resources (people, money, services) when and where they are most needed.

Action translates this planning into pressure by involving people in the most influential ways possible and at the most crucial times. Action serves to create pressure on the opposition and to build your organization by involving people in applying pressure.

Resources make the campaign. Besides money, resources include people, skills, and "in-kind" contributions (such as the use of a computer).

Timing is determined by questions such as: When are we strongest? When are they weakest? How can we make these two conditions happen at the same time?

Strengths and weaknesses of both your campaign and the opposition need to be assessed. An open, honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of your campaign should be conducted before, during, and after it is finished. The analysis of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses is conducted by asking questions such as: Where are they vulnerable? Can we throw their timing off? Is there a way we can force them to use their strengths at the wrong time for them and the right time for us?

Strategic research might answer the following questions for organizations making decisions during an election. The campaign staff will want to ask these questions of both their candidate and the opposition's. In the process of answering these questions, intelligence is gathered by taking pieces of information, looking for patterns, and putting them together in order to know what needs to be known.

• Which candidate will help build the organization's membership, funds, resources, and media coverage?

• Which candidate will build credibility for the organization?

• Which candidate offers the organization a victory?

• Which candidate will deliver on promises after the victory?

• Which candidate will have the most positive impact on organization members (as opposed to the public at large)?

• Which candidate will acknowledge the organization's work while she or he is in office?

• If the candidate ran in previous elections, where did his or her campaign contributions come from?

• If the candidate has been in office, what was the impact of her or his past legislation or activities?

• What do power blocs of all political persuasions (chamber of commerce, labor unions, minorities, etc.) think of the candidate?


Tactical Research

Research has the responsibility not only of assessing candidates but also of keeping them honest after they are elected. Tactics involve specific applications of resources (people, money, staff, meetings, actions) to strengthen your position at a particular point in an overall strategy. The strategy determines which tactics — including the use of research as a tactic — should be used, and when and where to apply them in an electoral or community campaign.

Research as a tactic generates pressure by producing information which is either politically, socially, or legally embarrassing to the opposition; or which bolsters your position. This information can be used behind the scenes or publicly and usually carries with it the threat of exposing some embarrassing economic or political relationship, or facts which the opposition would rather not see publicized.

Borrowing from theology (sins of commission and omission), tactical research looks for two types of patterns: commission (what the opposition does do) and omission (what they don't do).

Patterns of commission useful in an electoral setting might be: • Contributions from outside the district. In one campaign, for example, 60 to 70 percent of the contributions came from outside the state in which the candidate ran. The money was given due to his membership on a very powerful congressional committee.

• Many contributions coming in after the elections. This is not illegal nor necessarily politically embarrassing, but it certainly raises the question, "Is there a purpose? Why did contributors send money after the election?"

• Contributions from specific economic and/or political interests. When most of the money comes from a very few political and/or economic interests, it answers the question, "Who has the candidate's attention?" It can also answer the question, "Who owns the candidate?"

Some patterns of omission might be:

• Reports of campaign contributions not filled out fully as required by law. All too often the practice is to give only the name and address of the contributor and the amount of the contribution. Sometimes the cumulative contributions as of the date of the report are given. Usually the law also requires the address of a contributing business and a description of its principal activity. This information is required in federal elections, and states are increasingly adopting the federal requirements.

• Reports not filed in legally mandated locations. Federal elections, for example, require forms to be filled out in each state where expenses have been incurred. This doesn't usually happen, and, if revealed, this information can be politically embarrassing to the candidate.

Research is time-consuming, and requires early planning. Often it must be initiated even before the decision has been made to become involved in a campaign. It also requires resources during the frenetic days of the campaign, as well as access to the candidate and/or the strategy committee, and to other skills. But well-executed research increases the chances of winning.


Case Study:

Research and Tax Reform

Several years ago, Ralph Nader's Tax Reform Group worked out a research methodology which analyzed the campaign contributions of and legislation introduced by former U.S. Representative Wilbur Mills, a onetime candidate for president of the United States. The research was part of an overall strategy to win tax reform in the House Ways and Means Committee, which Mills chaired for many years. If the strategy failed to achieve tax reform, we hoped it would at least begin to chip away at Mills's power over the committee.

By studying Mills's campaign reporting forms, it was possible to determine the economic interests of the contributors to his election campaigns. We then applied the same analysis to legislation Mills had either sponsored or co-sponsored in Congress. We found a high correlation between dairy interest contributions and legislation Mills supported. This made an effective report released through the media in Mills's home district in Arkansas. We made a strategic decision to release our findings where he would be politically more accountable rather than in the politically protected environment of Washington. The report became one element of a major scandal around Mills and dairy money.

The research found other patterns: Mills had not filed reports in the right ways or in all the states required by law. Our report charged "campaign reporting irregularities and a special relationship between the dairy interests and Mills." The words were carefully chosen. We did not charge any illegal actions, just "irregularities." You can build a political case against an official whether she or he has done anything illegal or not. The case against Mills was basically not a legal case, though there were technical violations of the campaign reporting laws. We demonstrated a relationship between Mills and the dairy industry that was politically embarrassing to Mills. Media coverage of the ensuing scandal was international.

As part of our strategy we then moved on to the next ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, Al Ullman of Oregon. We decided not to focus on him because the distance to Oregon and the scattered population of his district would have required a level of resources we couldn't commit. So we focused on the third-ranking member, Joel T. Broyhill, a Virginia congressman for many years.

The research we conducted around Broyhill was an improvement over the Mills effort in two important ways. First, the methodology was expanded to include economic interests Broyhill had personally acquired (mostly in real estate). Second, the report was released two weeks before Broyhill was expected to be easily re-elected. This element of timing was crucial. Releasing the report in the heat of the campaign made the difference in Broyhill's defeat. He attributed his loss to the report — which he called a smear.


Research Sources

Several general manuals are available which provide a good guide to research methods and sources. The NACLA Research Guide (North American Congress on Latin America, 151 W. 19th St., New York, NY 10011, $5.00), and one by the Institute for Social Justice (4415 San Jacinto, Dallas, TX 75204, $3.50) are just two examples. There are also research and organizing manuals focusing on specific issues: the Center for Community Change (1000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20007) has published several, including Citizen Monitoring: A How-To Manual ($3.50). People still seem to find my "Tactical Investigations for People's Struggles" helpful, even though it was written years ago.

The following are some of the more common sources used in the electoral arena. Use them creatively. For example, if you find that a candidate sits on the board of a hospital and also owns a factory with a high accident rate, that candidate has a weakness you can exploit.

Ethics Statements are called by different names in different states, but usually are referred to by this term. These list income from outside sources such as dividends from stock, consulting fees, income from speaking engagements, and sales commissions, and they are useful for finding economic relationships. Not all cities require ethics statements, but they are consistently available on the state level. Local officials are usually required to file them somewhere in city hall, and state officials often file them at the office of the secretary of state. To track the statements down on the local level, try asking the city clerk; on the state level, try asking the state librarian.

Statements of Extra-Judicial Income provide the same information as ethics statements, but for federal judges. Copies are filed with the clerk of the court for each court jurisdiction.

Campaign Reporting Forms are found locally in the office of the elections bureau (also called the board of elections). Forms for state elections are usually filed in the secretary of state's office or with the state board of elections. These forms also give the expense records of campaigns.

The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) monitors federal election laws. It has reports on all contributions to candidates for federal office. FEC publications list contributions by source and by recipient. All reports relating to federal campaign finance since 1972 are available for public inspection and copying. FEC's tollfree number is (800) 424-9530. Write for publications to FEC, 1325 K St., NW, Washington, DC 20463.

Tax Records show how much property a person owns, who owns a particular piece of property, the assessed value of the property, improvements on the property, and delinquent taxes. These records are available in municipal or county courthouses and at the tax supervisor or assessor's office.

Court Records tell you if a person was ever arrested, sued, or had judgments brought against him or her. You can also find out from these records if that person has ever had anyone else arrested or has sued anyone.

Minutes of Meetings of all public city agencies, such as the city council and the board of education, are public information. You can determine how a person voted on a particular issue.

City Directories list individuals by their addresses as well as by name. They also give their occupations, places of business, and other people living in their households. Directories are useful for a number of purposes, including getting more information on contributors.

Standard and Poor's Registry of Executives and Directors tells who sits on the boards of directors of various companies. This is useful for tracking down a candidate's contributors or officeholder's economic relationships and charitable involvements (boards of hospitals, foundations, service organizations, etc.). This should be available at public and university libraries.

Who's Who directories exist for almost every vocation, location, and minority. These are useful for learning a person's biographical data, corporate involvements, and past political relationships. Klein's Guide to American Directories will lead you to the right source.

Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory has special value, since many candidates and lobbyists are lawyers. It gives information on all lawyers and most law firms in the country, including biographical data and a partial listing of corporate clients. This directory will often give information on the financial worth of a firm or lawyer, and a rating of his or her legal ability.