Using Opposition Research to Boost Your Advocacy Campaigns

by Tobias Cebulash (He/Him)

 Opposition Research

Getting Started with Advocacy Opposition Research

Opposition research is an important component of any advocacy campaign’s messaging strategy. This research is more commonly associated with candidate campaigns— however, being able to articulate a contrast with the other side is equally important in the advocacy space. If you want to be successful in effecting policy change, you need a comprehensive understanding of the landscape you’re operating in as well as how people feel about your cause. So, where to begin?

Does My Advocacy Campaign Need Opposition Research?

If you’re running an advocacy campaign, you will inevitably need some form of advocacy research to reach your goal. What that research strategy looks like and how much money you spend on it will depend on the size and nature of your advocacy campaign.

Before you pin down a research plan, identify your campaign’s primary goal. Is your public health coalition aiming to pass a tobacco tax? Is your environmental group trying to get supporters to hold state legislators accountable for protecting rivers and streams from pollution?

Once you’ve identified your goal for the program at hand, you can figure out the tactics and develop a clear message that will help achieve that goal. To craft a message that resonates, you’ll want to understand the lay of the land in your environment by addressing some key questions:

  • How well-known is the issue? 
  • Do folks have a defined opinion on the issue? Are opinions divided across specific groups in your community?
  • How much support is there to your issue among the public?
  • How much opposition is there to your issue among the public?
  • Who is the opposition (think legislators, organizations, funders, etc.)? 
  • What tactics do you expect your opposition to use to undermine your goal (grassroots, grass-tops organizing, paid media)?
  • How much money will they spend? What is the timing of the action? 
  • Who are your supporters (think legislators, organizations, activists, community leaders, etc.)?
  • How can you leverage this support (think resources like time, money, and people)?
  • Why have previous efforts to advance this goal been unsuccessful?
  • How will your campaign frame its goal?
  • How will your campaign frame your opponent’s goal?
  • What will your opposition say about their goal?
  • What will your opposition say about your goal? 

Conducting opposition research can help you answer these questions and more to strengthen your overall campaign and messaging strategy.

What Are the Options for Advocacy Opposition Research?

The tactics you’ll use to conduct opposition research for your advocacy campaign will depend on your goal and your budget, but here are a couple of routes you may consider:

  • DIY basic opposition research. The jump from no opposition research to basic research is huge. Even the smallest advocacy campaign should do basic research on what the opposition is up to and what constitutes the coalition for or against an issue. Doing basic donor research, understanding what has been tried before, and who cares about an issue can push your advocacy campaign to the next level. It doesn’t take much to make an impact here—a volunteer or group of volunteers with time and direction can pull together very useful opposition research reports. In fact, volunteers will often have perspectives about community viewpoints that you or your staff might not—a valuable tool for advocacy opposition research. 
  • Hire an opposition researcher. If you are running an advocacy campaign against a well-funded opponent, or multiple special interests, hiring a researcher is often a smart move. An opposition researcher will help you understand where funding and opposition support is coming from, what other endeavors the funders are connected to, and what public statements they have made. This is the next step up, and a professional opposition researcher will often return with more information than you could have even anticipated. Take the time to go through their reporting closely—what stands out to you might not necessarily stand out to them. An early opposition research report can be a tool you reference throughout your campaign. It’s better to have the information and not need it than to need the information and not have it!
  • Impact Analysis. Understanding the potential or ongoing impact of a policy can help sway public opinion for or against an issue. This kind of analysis can be done by a policy or topic expert—think economic or environmental impact analysis. Adding this sort of professional research report to your toolkit can give you a leg up in your strategic communication and legislative lobbying efforts. Even if your issue seems obvious, having quantifiable metrics on impacts can make a big difference to potential supporters. 

Other Advocacy Research: 

  • Self/Issue research. Understanding your issue is important before you undertake a community advocacy campaign. This means you need to research where your issue stands in the community, with elected officials, and among key opinion leaders. Know your strengths and weaknesses, including your own funders, supporters, and stakeholders and how they are seen in your community. The best opposition researchers agree that this research is equally as important as the opposition research itself. If you know where your campaign or issue is weak, you can proactively address those problems. If they aren’t problems with an easy fix, you’ll be prepared to respond to them and keep the focus where you want it. 
  • Polling. Conducting a poll can help you test messages (both positive and negative) to gauge quantitative stats on how people feel about your cause. There are different types of surveys (tracking, IVR, benchmark, etc.) that can garner varying degrees of detail in responses across digital, phones, and other mediums. The type of poll that makes sense will depend on your goal. Costs will depend on the length of your survey, the number of people you want to survey (sample size), and the level of complexity required to execute the survey, among other factors. Before you pay for a poll, make sure you talk to other organizations to see what data they’ve gleaned on the issue. If there is no recent or relevant polling data out there, pooling resources with other groups in your community that want to achieve the same policy outcome is a great way to fund opposition research.
  • In-Person Focus groups. To capture qualitative, in-depth data on how people feel about your issue, you may want to conduct a focus group. Gathering participants together in a room fosters communication and openness, and will give you valuable insights into the conversations that are occurring around your issue. In-person focus groups are on the expensive side, with costs depending on the firm you hire, the issue area, the number of participants you’re recruiting, the location of the group, and the facility required to host the group, among other factors.
  • Online focus groups. This is a cost-efficient alternative to capture the nuances of people’s opinions. These groups function similarly to their in-person counterparts, but with greater flexibility in scheduling and timing. Depending on the online focus group structure, you can avoid the typical “group thinking” that often occurs when hosting in-person focus groups. On the other hand, you’ll miss out on the insights from natural, in-person conversations. This tradeoff can be minor in some instances, especially when you have detailed questions prepared and are looking for very particular insights, or it can be more significant, such as if you are in the early stages of research and exploring general dialogue around your issue.
  • Online panels. Similar to online focus groups, online panels are a great tactic for testing creative and short messages. You can typically set this up so that there are several sessions across multiple days, lowering the bar for participation. This can be a cost-effective method to glean both quantitative and qualitative data for your campaign. 

As you can see, the options surrounding opposition research for advocacy are broad, but that’s because of how impactful it can be for advocacy campaigns! Remember that there’s always more to be gained from opposition research than you expect, so start at whatever level you are comfortable with and review your results. You’ll likely find that the investment is well worth it in the end. 

Do you have more questions about opposition research for advocacy? Reach out to our team here!