Running For Office: Opposition Research
By Greg Scanlon
Self- and opposition-research is essential on any campaign — but how much do you really need to do? Well, as a research consultant, I’m obviously biased. You can never have enough!
Realistically, of course, most campaigns don’t have that luxury. So what should you do, and how should you do it? Before we dive into that, let’s start with what exactly opposition research is.
Oppo Research 101
Whether you’re investigating yourself or investigating an opponent, any research project essentially aims to narrow down a person’s public record into a digestible “book” of his or her main political vulnerabilities. Yes, some campaigns have been known to hire investigators to dig even deeper into an opponent’s private life because they heard some salacious gossip, but rifling through someone’s trash cans or tailing them home with a telephoto lens will generally not reflect terribly well on your candidate, and might even get you in legal trouble.
What’s fair game, then? Pretty much any public records footprint or paper trail that a person can leave. For most candidates, this means things like property records, court documents, arrest reports, disciplinary actions by public agencies, etc. If a candidate didn’t pay his or her property taxes, was disbarred, or spent the night in jail after a bar fight, you can bet it probably won’t take long to come up once the campaign kicks off.
Beyond that, research projects will vary widely depending on the subject’s background and the resources at hand (if you’re being considered for, say, the vice presidential nomination, prepare for some lengthy and probing interviews with lots of lawyers). For candidates who are attorneys, there will be plenty of court cases to pull and business associations to vet. For high-level corporate executives, there are all sorts of company filings that can expose outsourced jobs, or violations of safety, environmental, or labor regulations. For lawmakers, there can be hundreds of votes to analyze, along with campaign finance records, office expenditures, and travel reimbursements. Most public officials and political appointees are required to file personal financial disclosures, which can provide a trove of information on potential conflicts of interest.
Plenty of candidates also overlook the importance of self-research, and instead focus entirely on their opposition. That’s a mistake. You may think you know all the skeletons in your closet that will come back to haunt you on the campaign trail, but it’s critical to have an outsider’s perspective, because often even innocuous past incidents can be made to look worse in the hands of your opponent. You may have completely forgotten that you paid a small penalty for filing your property taxes late five years ago, until a hit piece accusing you of fiscal mismanagement lands in your mailbox. Didn’t think grabbing lunch with some lobbyists during your time on City Council was a big deal? Maybe it wasn’t, but if you voted in favor of something that helped their client the next week, you’d better have an answer ready. Thorough self-research can help avoid all sorts of pitfalls that often trap campaigns in a vicious cycle of playing defense. When inevitable attacks land, you need to be ready for them, or you’ll have a difficult time pivoting back to your message.
Hiring A Researcher
In an ideal world, every campaign could afford to have a full-time research director working in their office full-time, but most non-statewide campaigns don’t have that capacity, and the initial research work is either outsourced to a consulting firm or relevant campaign committee. If you’re running a congressional campaign against a targeted incumbent, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s research department will probably have an abundance of material ready to go. If you’re running in a contested primary against other Democrats, though, you’ll have to go your own way.
Most campaigns in this position will send out a request for proposals to several research consulting firms, and then choose from the options they get back or are referred to by other committees or consultants. Different firms offer a variety of pricing, styles, and products, and every campaign must decide what they’re willing to budget and what they’re ideally looking to get in return. Other candidates and committees can often be helpful recommending consultants they’ve worked with before. Good rule of thumb: you get what you pay for, so beware cheap-sounding pitches that give you little more than a hasty rundown of old news clips. Regardless of the endless rumors your supporters will feed you, there’s rarely a silver bullet sitting in an agency filing cabinet that will destroy your opponent instantly - but the deeper you’re able to dig, the more likely you’ll uncover connections or patterns that either haven’t been found before or will catch your opposition off-guard. That kind of intensive investigative work takes an experienced eye and a good amount of time and effort - which also takes money.
Using Your Research
Self- and opposition research is usually conducted very early in a campaign, so it can be poll-tested to see what voters most respond to. If, say, your research team uncovered documents that showed your opponent had claimed an improper tax exemption on a vacation house while voting to raise taxes, it will probably test very well in polling and feature heavily in your messaging.
Good research will work in tandem with a campaign’s communications efforts — guiding it based on polling results, bolstering it when a press release may need “punching up,” and helping to respond when a campaign is attacked. The more material you have to pull from, the better prepared your campaign will be for anything that can happen during a race.
The level of scrutiny a candidate will face depends heavily on the seat they’re running for, but that can also give a campaign that invests in opposition research a substantial edge. A local school board race, for example, is unlikely to draw the attention of dozens of political reporters the same way a U.S. Senate seat will (especially given the decimation of local newspaper bureaus in recent years, unfortunately). But if your campaign has conducted a thorough investigation into your opponent and finds something worth reporting, plenty of reporters will be happy to run with it as long as you have the documentation to back it up.
That’s “earned” media — anything the press writes or reports about your race. They don’t work for you, obviously, and you can’t expect reporters to just carry your water and say exactly what you want them to say. But if you play fair with them and uncover legitimately newsworthy information, your findings will very likely make their way into headlines.
(If you can’t get reporters to bite on a story, or a campaign decides, for tactical reasons, to spread a message itself, that’s “paid” media: mail pieces, TV ads, digital buys, etc. Anything the campaign pays for itself.)
When it comes to all forms of media, it’s important to remember that a research book is essentially obsolete at the moment it’s handed to you — time marches forward; news keeps happening. That’s why it’s so crucial to make your researcher a true part of your team. I assure you we all have horror stories about mail pieces or TV ads going out without anyone bothering to double-check the claims or citations with the research team months before, only to later get snagged by a bad newspaper fact check or called out by the outraged opponent when something got mixed up in the shuffle. An involved research team should be a key part of everything from your messaging strategy meetings to debate prep to ongoing communications efforts, but they should definitely at least be confirming everything in your mailers, ad scripts, etc. That’s live ammunition!
At the end of the day, political campaigns are job interviews: you’re trying to convince the electorate to fire your opponent and hire you. Thorough self- and opposition research is how you build that argument. And, frankly, it’s also in the public’s interest — don’t they deserve to know if their State Senator skips most of his votes or spends taxpayer funds on luxury hotels?
Plan accordingly, and make your research hiring a priority when building your team.