Most of us have done a very limited amount of vetting candidates, though of course we size them up all the time. But there is a difference between choosing among a group of candidates from their media presentation and actually vetting them. Vetting is a systematic process for discovering the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates before offering them assistance.
The process of vetting is especially important to Precinct Committemen, who are the ultimate grassroots activists. As members of political parties, committeemen (or precinct captains, delegates, or whatever they are called in your state) are the first line of defense in keeping the bad actors out of politics — and in identifying good public servants, as well.
I divide the key factors in vetting a candidate into Commitment, Policy, and Retail Politics categories. In breaking down those factors, realize that they are related and often in conflict, so don’t get caught up in the categorization. A candidate sometimes will have to choose between his commitment to getting elected, to his principles and policies, and how to speak to a given set of voters on particular topics.
Another note before digging in: candidates lie. They forget, obfuscate, hedge, hide, engage in wishful thinking, and try to put the best face on things. A good vetting process is designed to alert both the candidate and the investigating committeeman to potential pitfalls. It is an essential part of filling local offices and developing a campaign strategy for the selected candidates.
A key element of a candidate’s strength is desire for the job. In vetting candidates, we discover their mix of desire for personal gain, general sense of civic duty, or inner drive from principled conviction that leads them to run.
Does the candidate actually meet the residency and other requirements for the office? One state party officer announced that he had moved into a new district and was going to run for the state House. The local party took him at his word. After the primary, the other side challenged his residency. They had done their opposition research. As it happened, he was basing his “residency” on his in-laws’ house — he spent a lot of time with them, and he slept there occasionally, too. In his mind, he said, this was his new residence. The court disagreed, and had his name struck from the ballot. Candidates lie.
For a local race, a candidate must at least devote every weekend to the effort. In general, the time commitment for the campaign should be at least as much as the office itself requires. Aside from a few hours here or there, vacations during a campaign are out.
Candidates for public office beyond local, unchallenged elections require quite a bit of learning. Will the candidate invest in and attend formal training?
- Family commitment
Candidates will have to be away from their families traveling, campaigning, eating, and attending fund raising events. Families must support the effort. If the family doesn’t support the effort, not only will that deny the candidate vital support, but opponents will notice and use that against the candidate. Families must also endure the pressure of time away from the candidate. There may be direct attacks on them, and in general all resources will be drained more with the importance of the office.Candidates will lie about their family problems, as well. It is important to discover any closeted skeletons and dirt that the other side can potentially use. Running for public office is an invitation to scour a candidate’s background and personal life for poor choices. Candidates must be prepared for their secrets to be exposed at some point, and must therefore choose between keeping their privacy and winning.
A campaign places financial demands on the family, as well. Candidates must be willing to spend their own money, and to budget the family’s money alongside the campaign’s. No family has to commit their entire fortune to a run for office, of course, and voters will not be happy with a candidate who neglects his family to win. But the family should understand and match the candidate’s commitment. Willingness to fund the campaign signifies the degree of family backing and candidate sincerity.
- Idealism versus Realism
Candidates tend to want to win elections either by finding a way to package their own opinions for the public, or by adjusting themselves to current public opinion (or a mix of those). Either method has strengths and pitfalls, and candidates should know what their overall plan will be.
- The Three Variables
Public policy issues seldom have black and white answers. Even when they do, no two candidates will agree on how strongly they believe in a given position, nor necessarily how important the issue is relative to the other issues.So it is not enough to ask candidates if they are pro-life or favor the right to keep and bear arms. For each policy question or area, candidates should answer
- What they believe
Do they know their positions? If you are in a position of guiding the campaign, note whatever knowledge holes the candidate has and supply answers that fit the candidate, the electorate, and the party line. Too many holes is a bad sign.
- How convinced they are
Can they make the case? Do they have any doubt at all about their positions, do their closest advisers agree, and does the position fit within their overall system of belief?
- How important it is
Are they willing to lose an election over this? John McCain famously said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he would rather lose an election than lose a war. That is the best way to determine how important a position is to a candidate. While related to how strongly they hold their opinion, conviction and importance are independent.
For instance, a candidate who favors drug legalization might only barely be convinced of that position, or they might be quite sure that the War on Drugs is, to them, a mistaken policy. Independent of their opinion on the issue, they may also see it as either an unimportant back-burner item, or as a vital social issue with significant impact on race relations, border security, and foreign policy.
- What they believe
- Does the candidate go in for any conspiracy theories or other unpopular views?
Everyone believes things they can not prove. It is human nature to devise working theories for the world on insufficient evidence. Sometimes these theories are more complex than the common wisdom, or require a higher level of cynicism. Sometimes they get to the next level, and require magical thinking or involve UFOs, complex plots against the stated interests of those involved, and unwillingness to accept a standard explanation. The more unpopular or ridiculous the theory, the more important it is to uncover it in a vetting session.
- Projection — He is one of us!
Candidates will push their views on issues they know are hot buttons for you as long as they think you will agree, letting you assume that they agree on other issues, as well. For instance, they will inform you of their support for your position on one of:
- Gun rights
- Fiscal conservatism
or just mention
- “I am a conservative”
- Ronald Reagan
- Religious code words
… and expect that you will assume they believe what you believe on everything else. Their message is “I am one of you”. They may or may not be one of you, and they will absolutely not believe everything you do. Your job in vetting them is to dig deeper.
Looked at differently, if a candidate holds a position he knows to be unpopular, he may be convinced not to trumpet it. Or his belief in that unpopular position may be the thing that drove him into politics. Depending on the election, the opponent, and the centrality of the issue, a candidate may not have to mention an unpopular position.
In the long term, honesty is the best policy. A candidate who is afraid to announce his position when it is not popular will find it more difficult to reclaim the high ground when public opinion later shifts. Our task is to determine what the candidate truly believes.
The best way to bring out the truth is to have the candidate answer an exhaustive list of the questions of importance in the race, including measures of how strongly a candidate holds his position and ranking the issues in the campaign. As mentioned, the key question is: “Are you willing to lose the race and stick to your position on this issue?”
The fine folks at icaucus.org have done good work in this area, and campaigns should consider using their services and helping to fund their efforts. Individual precincts may be best served by their own list of issues, and for local elections the process may take place in a coffee shop over the course of several years.
When ranking issues for importance, forcing candidates to rank winning the race along with advocating positions on several issues will reveal the most information. But beware the candidate who puts winning the race too far down the list. They may not really want to win.
Beside passing the above tests, a “good candidate” has appeal in person, in public speaking, and in mass media.
- Ideally, a candidate takes command of a room upon entering it. But personal presence also means paying attention to grooming and clothing. Candidates for public office cannot take days off of grooming or cleanliness, nor can they afford to be off-image in public. And a “good candidate” would never be photographed eating, drinking, or grooming.
- Candidates should enjoy public speaking, or at least not dread it. Red flags are:
- Unclear, too fast or slow speech
- A noticeable lisp or thick accent not shared by electorate
- Inability to project voice to back of large room
- When raised, voice gets tinny or scary
- Failure to engage an audience, with rote or scripted delivery
- Voice tires quickly (may grow stronger with practice)
- A Good Candidate
- Draws energy from meeting people, rather than being drained by it
- Can remember names, at least of key players and campaign workers
- Maintains eye contact in one-on-one and live audience settings
- May not have all of the answers, but never looks caught in the headlights
- Will they go on offense?
A candidate for local office once campaigned exclusively on his résumé. He was campaigning against a well-known local name, and he was fairly new to the area. He worked hard, setting out campaign signs, walking in parades, and learning all the issues associated with the office, a technical finance position. The candidate stressed his 30 years experience as an accountant. After losing by 30 points, he said he had run because area leaders had asked him. The female incumbent lacked the education and experience to do the job, and probably always would. He had been too nice, not wanting to pick on a lady. But there is a way to say a negative thing and not come off as a bully. The incumbent should have been cast as over matched, such as “She’s doing her best, I guess, but it would not be fair to her to keep her in office.”
- Can they take attacks impersonally?
Defending a position is an essential quality for a person in government. When attacks come, even personal attacks, officials must understand that the attacks are really aimed at the policies they favor, and not themselves. A person who takes these attacks to heart will not last. The campaign is a proving ground for these sorts of things, so we look for people who will stay on message in a foul environment.
These points must all be taken into consideration and balanced against one another. A candidate with strong financials can have weaker personal presence, but it is obviously best to be strong at both. But a candidate who is well-informed and thoroughly convinced of his policies had better be ready to deal with voters who disagree.
These principles and techniques translate directly into choosing candidates in races in which we are not personally involved. We can watch candidates in the media and listen to the people around them, inferring their qualities. We can read what they write, or what is written for them, and chart on our own their personal convictions in relation to winning and losing.
And when it comes time for us to take the fateful step into electoral politics, we will be that much more prepared to do it well.
Originally posted April 5, 2011. Updated October 21, 2013