The term vetting derives from the act in horse racing of having horses evaluated by a veterinarian to make sure they are healthy and in good condition to run a race. Horses with physical problems may not be able to participate in a race since this can pose a risk to the horse and its rider. Certain identifiable conditions could cause permanent disbarment from future races.
In politics, the term vetting is thrown around with as much ease as advice on who to bet on in a horse race. The very term race is also applied to the political candidate’s attempt to get elected; think of the terms presidential race, governor race, senatorial race, and you get the picture. Vetting can actually include scrutiny on the physical health of the candidate, but it also includes significant examination into the background of the candidate to analyze either falsehoods the candidate might utter when running for political office, and to evaluate the potential problems in the past history of the candidate that could be a liability in attempting to win political office.
Failure to completely disclose problems that occurred in the past that might be looked on by the public with disfavor, especially if used by the opposing candidate, can easily lose a race if the problem or sticky issue of the past (or present) is released to the public. A candidate may defend against false information, which is difficult to predict during the vetting process, but it’s difficult to defend against information that is true.
Parties may specifically work on the vetting process for candidates, but so do independent sources like the media. In fact, finding something scandalous or questionable in the candidate’s past may be the work not only of the party running the candidate and the media, but also of opposing candidates and staff. Digging up dirt on your opponents is standard fare in many political fields to prove that you are the superior candidate.
Insufficient vetting can easily knock a candidate out of a race. The discovery of former Senator Gary Hart’s extramarital affair when he was running for the presidential nomination is widely considered to have caused him to lose in the primary election to Michael Dukakis. He had been widely favored for the nomination before details on his affair with Donna Rice were released.
Other candidates have suffered when scrutiny of past history reveals unsavory details about their backgrounds. These can include evaluations of known associates, financial matters, and untrue claims made. Candidates may also vet themselves in order to be able to counter any liabilities that might come up along the way. Being able to immediately begin damage control on stories emerging during a campaign can be planned well in advance of these stories (true or false) ever being circulated.
Types of vetting include extensive background checks, background checks on associates, evaluation of statements made in the past, consideration of financial records and the financial records and behaviors of major donors. Candidates tend to fare better when there is little to reveal about their pasts, but malicious attempts to paint the candidate in an untrue or unworthy light can still bog them down.