‘Tis the season of 20-year-old divorce records, drunken-driving arrests, criminal complaints by ex-lovers and college pranks turned sour.
The trickle that started this spring and became a stream this summer is now a flood of dated court records and traffic tickets. No past incident is too small for glaring attention in an environment where an expanse of highly competitive races has both parties clawing for every advantage in every district, and partisan websites offer endless avenues for publishing.
As the election season nears a mud-slinging end, the once-shadowy business of opposition research stands among the professional endeavors of just about every campaign.
Opposition research is hardly new in political campaigns. In Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 masterpiece “All The King’s Men,” Governor Willie Stark tells his aide, Jack Burden, to dig up dirt on an opponent and “make it stick.”
The mission and the fundamental campaign strategies remain the same. But the matter of who does the work and how much gets done is changing rapidly. It is difficult to quantify the growth in opposition research because campaigns rarely identify their “oppo” expenditures in reports to the Federal Election Commission. For the 2010 election cycle, House campaigns and political action committees have reported only about $200,000 in expenditures labeled “opposition research,” according to FEC records compiled by CQ MoneyLine. Even that tiny number is about double the amount reported in the entire 2004 election cycle (discounting a $10,000 payment made by the Service Employees International Union for presidential opposition research that year).
But practitioners say there is no doubt more opposition research is being generated and more media outlets are publishing opposition research than ever before.
For starters, the major parties are doing more. John Neumann, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure research unit, said that over the years he’s seen the staff climb from seven to “10 or 11,” and this year they were brought on board earlier in the election cycle.
The Democratic side has shown similar growth. Spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had 10 researchers on staff in 2006; now it has 16.
But practitioners say much of the growth has occurred outside the political parties, with private consultants feeding off the explosion of independent expenditures and nonprofit political organizations that are now allowed to accept direct corporate and union donations.
“After the 2008 election, there was definitely an uptick in people who were out there offering [research] services,” said Kevin Wright, founder and director of the Old Dominion Research Group, a Republican research firm. “A lot of people on the GOP side who were out of a job … were forced into the position of having to make a living for themselves.”
The Internet has also contributed to the industry’s growth, Neumann said. “You have these campaigns that are not necessarily using sophisticated opposition research techniques, but you are definitely seeing them doing some research.”
Neumann added that “more amateurs are doing it … people’s ability to use Google makes everyone automatically an opposition researcher. You don’t let your sister go out on a date without doing a basic background search on the guy.”
But opposition research has also become a more integral part of campaigns at all levels, said Tiffany Muller, research director at the Democratic firm Hamilton Campaigns. “Opposition and self-research was utilized fairly well by large campaigns [in prior years] but it was also one of those things that campaigns were willing to cut out of their budget … they would have volunteers doing it,” she said. Now, “we are getting more and more calls from people who are running for city council or are running for mayor or are not in competitive house races … people are seeing the value of it more.”
Jason Stanford, president of Stanford Campaigns, a Democratic firm in Texas, said “when I first broke in in the mid ’90s, we were competing against the [candidate’s] brother-in-law, who was a lawyer, and the intern.” Since then, opposition research has become “a profession and something that you had to learn how to do.”
Part of the growth in opposition research this year is simply the electoral map, Stanford said. “We’ve seen the battlefield expand from a few narrowly targeted battleground races to nearly 100 this year,” he said.
Mark Bogetich, president of MB Public Affairs Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., said one driver of the growth in opposition research is the media itself. “There are just more outlets, and with the 24-hour news cycle and so much alternative media and so much online, there is so much more opportunity for placement,” he said.
He added, “It used to be that way back in the 1990s. It was like everybody would sit around and wait for the big major daily papers in Washington or New York to do their big oppo dump stories … that’s really changed because of the multiplication of news outlets.” With the advent of blogs and online news outlets, “what you see are a lot more research-driven stories that aren’t the big 4,700-word, front-page newspaper story.”
One research consultant said the standard for getting opposition research published has dropped dramatically. “There are some reporters I have worked with across the country who will take basically any research document and write it the way the researcher wrote it,” the source said, “even at some of the big papers.”
All of the research pros said an underappreciated part of opposition research is “self-research,” which uncovers the vulnerabilities of your own candidate.
“Particularly with first-time candidates, ones that haven’t held legislative office, they always think there is nothing to be found on them,” Wright said. But invariably, the opposition discovers something they said in the past or a controversial paper they wrote in college, “and then they are scrambling trying to find a way to refute it. If they had just done their due diligence, they wouldn’t be.”
The campaign of Connecticut Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon took credit for conducting the research that showed her opponent, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, had exaggerated his Vietnam-era military service record.