Opposition Research - The Misunderstood Art of Political Campaigns

Probably the most misunderstood aspect of campaigning is opposition research.   For many, it is synonymous with “digging up dirt.”   Without question, if there is dirt to dig, opposition research should find it.

But real opposition research is more about finding information that will help voters reach conclusions about the candidates’ character, integrity and fitness for office.

Real opposition research has two functions:  research the opposition and research youself.   First, forget the cloak and dagger aspects of op research.  An opposition researcher’s  real work is done on-line, in libraries and at courthouses plodding through dusty records, old newspapers and whatever Google™ can find floating through cyberspace.

Without question, the opposition researcher is looking for past behavior that highlights an opponent’s lack of character, judgment and integrity.   After all, past performance may indicate future conduct in office.

That’s why the first person you should research is you.  Google yourself.   You may be astonished by the personal information that is stuck to the worldwide web for anyone to reach out and grab. 

In one recent campaign, we found some deadly information about a candidate.   Where?  On his own Facebook page – complete with every picture we needed to persuade voters he wasn’t mature enough for public office.

Assume that anything you can find about yourself can be easily found by your opponent.  Few issues are automatically fatal if they are managed properly during a campaign.

The worst thing that happens to a campaign is to be unprepared for an attack based on something the candidate knows or should have known was in his/her past.   Good op research will discover what is discoverable about you and allow the campaign to prepare for it.

After cataloging potential avenues of personal attack, develop pre-determined responses and counterattacks to deal with them.    Have them already “in-the-can” so they can be dealt with immediately as they arise.

This is particularly true of incumbents.  The longer you serve in office the longer your voting record grows and the more public statements you’ve made.  You probably forgot that bill, ordinance or resolution you co-sponsored as a favor to a colleague.   Yet, it’s lurking out there in the public record with your name attached.

Every election cycle, incumbents should have someone re-evaluate their votes and public statements since the last election so the campaign can prepare responses about what you said or did, and why.   Ditto your personal life, too.

In an era of camera phones, who knows what incriminating, embarrassing or unexplainable photo may be out there.   Don’t be paranoid, but be cautious and be prepared.

Several years ago, an opponent attacked our candidate for failing to pay child support.   Within hours, our candidate’s ex-wife appeared at a press conference and blasted the opponent for exploiting her children for political gain.

We had researched our candidate, assumed this would be a potential attack and had discussed this ahead of time with the ex-wife.   The attack backfired and our candidate won.  Without this internal analysis, we would have been caught unprepared.

So, only after researching yourself should you look to your opponent.

First, opposition research isn’t about tracking down every rumor and innuendo that a campaign hears about its opponent.  If you waste time chasing rumors, you will likely miss the real information buried in some archive that sheds a factual light on your opponent’s character.

That doesn’t mean you ignore the inevitable chatter that occurs during a campaign, but you do need to focus on real, verifiable issues that truly matter to voters.   Not paying taxes, personal bankruptcies, divorces based on philandering, arrest records, failure to pay child support, abusing authority, and using office for personal gain do reflect on a candidate’s character, competence and fitness for office.   This information is the true substance of opposition research.

Second, family issues must be dealt with delicately – if at all.  Wives, children, parents and other relatives should be out of bounds unless there are highly compelling reasons to involve them.

As demonstrated by the earlier cited ex-wife’s reaction to a political attack, family matters - even seemingly legitimate issues – are fraught with danger.   Handle with care.    

Also, use professional opposition researchers with a history of success, an understanding of what really matters in a campaign and who can painstakingly document any information that they gather.

Any information gleaned from op research must be fully verifiable – preferably from multiple sources.   In the very first campaign in which I volunteered, the candidate used a newspaper clipping in a mailing.  The campaign made several inferences about the published information that may have been accurate, but were difficult to verify.

Within days, the campaign faced a $1.5 million libel suit.  Though it was eventually dismissed at trial, it still cost the candidate thousands in legal fees and some unpleasant publicity.  We won the primary, but lost the war – the general election – due to the libel trial’s recurring publicity.

Also, avoid hiring a private detective.  Since you must disclose all campaign expenditures, the detective agency will turn up on your disclosures.   If you pay someone to tail your opponent surreptitiously it can be easily spun by the media and your opponent as underhanded campaigning.   This doesn’t apply to video or audio taping an opponent in an open meeting, but to snooping through the windows, trash or other easily misunderstood invasion of privacy.

At least one candidate I consulted with hired a private detective without informing me.  He wanted video proof of activities that were eating at him, but that, in the big picture, didn’t matter.  When the two individuals being tailed discovered their privacy had been violated, they went justifiably ballistic.  Not only did it waste campaign resources – money and candidate time – it backfired.

A professional opposition researcher would have understood that the things getting under the candidate’s skin had no relevance to voters.   A professional researcher also would have brought the candidate’s request to my attention so we could have dealt with his unwise fixations.

Finally, once you have documented evidence that reflects on an opponent’s character, integrity or fitness for office, the campaign must decide how to use it.   Three things matter:  relevance, tone and accuracy.

Polling the data will help determine its relevancy.   Testing the message with real voters, not campaign insiders, will help set the proper tone.   Documenting the information completely will take care of accuracy.

Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. If your campaign is interesting in talking to him about campaign consulting services, email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.