Know Your Environment

Before you can put together a good plan for any type of campaign, you have to have good information. That means that you need an honest evaluation of the things that will have an impact on the campaign and its ability to succeed. In other words, you need to know your environment. It’s like the water that you’re going to have to swim in.

In political campaigns, knowing your environment means knowing any outside influences, knowing the campaigns and/or candidates themselves, knowing the issues and the media that you may have to deal with. If you’re aware of what the environment will be like, then you’ll know what your plan needs to address and what you need to plan around – or even try to leverage to your advantage.

Here’s how to break it down:

Know the Outside Influences:

Whether you like it or not there are some outside factors that aren’t related to you or the opposition that can have an impact on any campaign. You need to take them into account and determine what kind of difference they could make.

Below is a short list of items to consider, but make note of anything else that could have a major impact.

• If it’s an election, what other races are on the ballot? President, governor, senator, representative? State and/or local races? Are any of them popular (or unpopular) enough to impact voter turnout?
• Are candidates in other races likely to draw more favorable or unfavorable voters to the polls?
• Major endorsements? (Who’s supported by the big names, and will it matter?)
• Are there any key referendums on the ballot?
• If it’s a lobbying campaign, who supports and opposes it? Establishment/insiders or outsiders?
• Are there any special interest groups or coalitions at work? Will they help or hurt?
• Who can you expect to work against you? If it’s an election, how is all of this likely to impact voter turnout?
• What are the economic conditions? What impact will they have?
• Is there an intense anti-establishment atmosphere?
• List any key events or dates between now and the election (or any key vote that you may be lobbying) and how they could impact the campaign.

The more that you know about the outside factors that you can’t control, and the events that are looming on the horizon, the better the chances that a campaign plan will be realistic about what you can and can’t do. The point is to try to avoid creating a plan that runs smack into reality or events that you could have anticipated.

It will help you avoid having a plan that forces you to swim against the tide – or at least give you a realistic idea of just how hard you’re going to have to swim!

Know the Campaigns:

The next step is to take a realistic look at the campaign itself, as well as the opposition. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Does it have what it needs? Is it likely to? Sketch out an honest profile of both sides. Start with a simple “T” chart for strengths on one side and weaknesses on the other. Pull this basic information together and review it.

Take a good look at the opposition as well as your own campaign from several different perspectives, then specifically focus on doing more detailed research of the opposition.

Candidate profiles would include:
• Biography / Resume – (On paper, who looks more qualified and has the best story to tell?)
• Personal strengths and weaknesses – (Of candidates and campaign leadership)
• Stands on the Issues – (If it’s a candidate campaign, any flip-flops or philosophical problems?)
• Support from special interests – (Which political groups are involved for whom, and does it hurt or help?)
• Political experience – (Does anyone have any? Past campaigns? Does anyone have experienced or “smart” help?)
• Financial support – (What kind of donors? Self-funding? Access to donors?)
• Resources – (Does either campaign have what it needs to win, or is it likely to?)
• News clippings – (Collect any useful news clips / articles on the issue or candidates)
• Existing networks – (Who’s well connected and has access to others to build support)

Opposition Research: most of the information below can usually be found with the government body they represent.
• Votes and/or stands on issues: are they consistent?
• Accomplishments – (What have they sponsored or co-sponsored? Have any of their proposals become law?)
• Attendance records – (Did they show up for work regularly or not?)
• Campaign and personnel finance disclosures – (Look for any position switches within days of getting major contributions)
• Any resume inflation?

What jumps out as an obvious weakness that the public would care about? Why is that? Know the answers and you will be able to plan to exploit and leverage your strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses. You’ll know what “ground” you would rather fight on.

Sun Tzu put it this way, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles”. Don’t’ lose on account of ignorance.

Know the Issues:

Whether you’re running a grassroots organization, a lobbying campaign or an election campaign, issues matter. As legendary South Carolina political consultant Lee Atwater used to say “Issues win campaigns”, and he was exactly right. Issues win campaigns because campaigns are about people…and people are moved by issues.

Issues can be used to unite voters behind a cause or a candidate, or divide them away from one. They can also be used to compliment a candidate or group’s image, if they’re consistent with the current image, or what you want to portray.

Choose the Right Issues. Most people hate politics. They don’t usually get involved in it because they’re bored and lying around with nothing to do. Something motivates them. They care about something. Take the time to find out what that is.

Find the issues that are relevant to the people whose support you need – AND that are important enough to move them to take action. The kind of issues that not only motivate people, but that sometimes may even divide your supporters passionately from your opponents.

In many cases it can even work to your advantage to make an election, a vote that you may be lobbying, or even a PR campaign, into a “referendum” on a specific issue or group of issues. In other words, you can piggy-back on public support for an issue that people care about by equating support for your cause or campaign with support for that issue.

Take a look at the issue environment and determine which issues will have the greatest impact on your campaign, (or could if they caught fire).

You can check any recent polls that have been done that mention specific issues, make note of those that get a lot of play in “letters-to-the-editor”, consider doing a “focus group” of campaign supporters and reviewing major issues with them, or even send a web-based “issues survey” or poll to everyone on your email lists.

• List the “hottest” issues?
• List issues that have the potential to be “hot”?
• List those that are relevant to the supporters that you need

Remember that in order for an issue to have an impact, people must be aware of it – AND the differences between you and the opposition. They have to be highlighted aggressively and repeatedly.

Know the Media:

Communications are a critical part of any type of political campaign and, like it or not, that usually means dealing with the media, (both the “old” and “new” varieties). In order to do that effectively you need to gather some basic information about who you will be dealing with.

List all media outlets that would conceivably cover your campaign or issue: ex. radio, TV, newspapers, blogs and other notable outlets. List key contact information, political ad rates, deadlines and endorsement policies
Determine which outlets will be most relevant to the campaign and how to use them. (Ex., blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Supporter social media accounts, etc.)
ID and create a list of key social media contacts (ex., media, bloggers, key “influentials”). Communicate and share campaign updates with them on a regular basis


Follow these steps and make sure you have a realistic view of the environment the campaign will take place in – and be prepared to deal with it (or even leverage it)!

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