One of my favorite movie quotes of all time is from the adaptation of The Hunt for Red October, the Tom Clancy novel, where the National Security Adviser turns to the main character and says, “I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheater and a liar. And when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops.” (What can I say, I work in politics. It’s funny.)
Obviously, this is a humorous caricature, but the point still stands. How can you tell whether an officeholder, or someone running for office is just telling you what you want to hear? How do you know they will stand up for what they claim to when they are in office?
HSLDA Action spends time each fall vetting candidates for federal office. We get calls and emails every year from around the country asking for suggestions on the most homeschool friendly candidates in various races from the federal right down to the school district level. Unfortunately, we simply cannot research every candidate for every office every year. But we can share with you our process, and give you the resources you need to determine for yourself which candidate to support.
So, without further ado, here are our Candidate Vetting Best Practices:
Learn the Basics: Every candidate worth their salt will have a campaign website, or at a minimum a social media account, with some basic information. What a candidate tells you about themselves on one of these platforms is very indicative. Here are some of the most important things to learn:
- Professional history: Do they seem to have the ability to learn to do the job well?
- Past Experience: Do they have expertise in relevant fields? Have they held similar offices at a lower level in the past?
- Stated Policy Positions and Priorities: Do they claim to support positions you believe to be in the best interest of their hoped-for constituency?
While no candidate is perfect, if you find a huge red flag on any of these main points, you probably don’t need to go any further. You’ve just tripped over them putting their best foot forward. They probably aren’t the candidate for you.
Determine Party Affiliation: (if any/if applicable) We want to tread very lightly here, and we recommend that you do so as well. HSLDA Action does not believe in political parties as a determining factor for whether or not a candidate is homeschool friendly. We judge them based on their actions and intentions. Having said that, it is a reality that people who identify with a particular party do so because they feel a certain amount of alignment with the policy views that party stands for. There is nothing wrong with that, and at times, this can provide valuable insight into how a candidate approaches many issues. We would be remiss if we did not mention party affiliation as a tool that may be helpful in determining a candidates likely policy stances when they enter office.
It is also worth noting that, for many candidates—particularly on the local level—party affiliation may be less important or significant. This tool should be used to set the context of what a candidate says. Not used to pre-judge a candidate.
Examine Previous Record: Actions speak louder than words. If the candidate you are researching has ever held a position before, probably the most convincing way to predict what they will actually do if elected is to see what they have actually done in the past. Obviously, this can be difficult, as many candidates are first-time candidates or have never held an office that deals with similar issues. For example, someone’s record as a school-board member is unlikely to be particularly illuminating if they are now running for town council. However, odds are that at least some of the candidates in every race will have some kind of relevant record.
So how do you find this record? If you have already learned the basics, then the candidate will have already told you whether they are likely to have a record to look at. After that, it is simply a matter of checking local news sources regarding the issues of concern to you. (Google is your best friend here.) Depending on how deep you go, almost all official communications and actions taken by a public official can be accessed. If you want to find out what a candidate said or did on a specific issue, or at a specific meeting, those records are almost certainly public. Talk to the relevant government entity’s clerk’s office to find out how to acquire them.
Examine Endorsements: Where a candidate has no record, or their record is not particularly relevant, endorsements are a helpful and reasonably reliable indicator or a candidate’s intensions. Candidates who have been endorsed, either by individuals or organizations have to be convincing to people used to seeing through political rhetoric and getting to the heart of what a candidate is likely to attempt in office. Additionally, they usually have a level of clout that will at least make a candidate pause before going back on promises or commitments made to those who endorsed them.
Candidates seek endorsements intentionally to confirm and bolster their credibility on issues. Organizations and politicians who endorse usually have a level of notoriety and are explicitly in support of certain causes. By examining a candidate’s endorsements, you can usually discern their general policy stance on issues. Most candidates publicize their endorsements, but if you can’t find the endorsements on the candidate’s website, you may try calling the campaign and asking them about who they have been endorsed by.
Consider Personal Character: Many people take a candidate’s personal character into consideration when determining how fit they are for public office. Without a personal connection, this can be difficult to be confident in. However, with some time, you can be reasonably sure of finding out if there are any concerns that are already public. The best way to go about this is, once again, news sources. (Google is also your best friend here.) Simply searching the candidate’s name, and then the moral issue you are concerned about, will likely bring up anything that is public knowledge. For example, you might search, “John Doe corruption.” Or simply, “John Doe scandal.”
When sorting through this step, it is important to consider the source and to remember that just as you can’t necessarily take what the candidate says about themselves at face value, it is possible that some of what you find may not be able to be taken at face value either. The candidates try to put on their best face. The opposition will try to paint them in the worst-possible light. Make sure you search for credible, plausibly neutral sources for your information.
There you have it! The basics of candidate vetting.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? That’s understandable. The key is to be as informed as you are able. Doing any single one of these steps will put you better off than when you started, and most of the steps can be done in just a few minutes. If you don’t think you have the time to go over all the steps, pick the one that you feel will be the most indicative for you. Are you an issues voter? Look at what they say they are going to stand for. Do you just want to make sure that they aren’t a terrible person? Do some quick character-targeted Google searches. If you want a snapshot of what other people and organizations think about the candidate, check out their endorsements.
Doing a little research is better than doing no research. The more you do research, the more comfortable you will be with the process, and the more you will know where to look for the details and information you actually care about. And ultimately, that is the goal. It’s all about knowing you are voting for someone who stands for the things you care about.