An Inside Look at the DCCC Research Department

Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:39pm

Opposition researchers yearn for the “aha!” moment when they find that golden nugget of information that could break a campaign or doom a candidate.

Sometimes they’re reading decades-old articles in Washington, D.C., searching documents in county clerk’s offices across the country, or, in the case of Jonathan
Pullum, digging through jailed former
Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s (R) archives in Springfield.

“On one of the governor’s schedules for the day, it had a list of earmarks cited that [Rep.] Timothy Johnson [R] was looking for, from the governor,” recalled Pullum, a research analyst for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I felt pretty good because he’s come out against earmarks.”

With a staff of 25, the DCCC boasts the largest in-house research department of the four Congressional campaign committees. The department’s ingenuity will be tested like never before this cycle, as House Democrats seek to net the 25 seats needed to regain the majority.

The DCCC’s team of mostly 20-somethings researches opposition targets  for eight weeks at a time, scouring news clips and YouTube videos and traveling across the country to comb through public records, all in hopes of finding a good hit. Discoveries go into hundred-page research books on their targets that are used as bait to recruit candidates, leaked to reporters or cited in campaign advertisements and mail pieces.

It’s all part of the intensifying opposition research wars — in which both parties are regular and active participants. The typically guarded DCCC granted Roll Call unprecedented access to private research meetings and staff interviews on March 29, provided identifiable details about candidates were not revealed.

“They live, breathe and know that candidate from top to bottom,” Research Director Kevin McKeon said of his team. The straightforward 30-year-old has since moved to the committee’s independent expenditure unit, which will be tasked with spending the bulk of the committee’s money on fall TV ads.

The typical starting points for research are easy, but the unraveling of details often is not.

Do the candidates own any small businesses that accepted federal funds they voted against? Start digging through the secretary of state’s archives. Do they have more than a few mortgages on their underwater home? A case for fiscal irresponsibility with the right documentation. Runs a construction business? Often there are lawsuits to be found.

DCCC research books run 250 to 350 pages on average and are updated throughout the cycle. More junior Members can have books as short as 60 to 70 pages, but the books on some veteran lawmakers have more than 1,000 pages.

Diana Asti, a newly promoted research analyst, finished a 204-page book on a target following seven days on the ground, 30 Freedom of Information requests and finding every word from the candidate ever on record. That morning in the DCCC’s second-floor conference room, Asti finally had the opportunity to reveal one of her biggest discoveries about her target: his secret first marriage.

“My head just went in all different directions, like maybe they’ve divorced and he hasn’t paid alimony, or maybe he has a child and he hasn’t paid child support,” exclaimed the 23-year-old Asti afterward in an interview. “I went into a million different directions of what this could possibly be. It was a very exciting moment.”

The DCCC, now led by Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), has grown the department significantly since then-Chairman Rahm Emanuel brought the unit mostly in house in 2005. By 2008, the research team boasted 14 staffers.

Over the past few cycles, the department’s output increased significantly. In 2008 it prepared 56 books, and this cycle it anticipates compiling as many as 78 in-house research books.

Researchers also work on smaller, 48-hour projects, known as “backgrounders,” that often serve as primers for an upcoming book. The DCCC has put together 209 backgrounders on opponents this cycle.

By comparison, just a few blocks away from the DCCC, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s 12-person research department anticipates completing 50 to 60 books this cycle.

The DCCC’s research sources vary, but all of the information is found via public documents: property assessments, divorce decrees, court records and roll-call votes. Staffers put in dozens of FOIA requests for each candidate, known internally as a “FOIA bomb.”

Later in the project, research staffers travel to the candidates’ home base. On-the-ground research requires a little more finesse, and the most seasoned researchers have their tricks.

McKeon likes to bring doughnuts on the second day to charm the archives secretary. One of his deputies gets a haircut on every trip, because he believes the town barber usually knows everything.

There are some unintended consequences for the young biographers.

“My research humanizes them to me,” said Alex Ivey, a 22-year-old DCCC research analyst. “You spend two months in this guy’s mind, or this woman’s mind, as it were. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or call it what you want, but either way, I don’t walk away from at least any of the research books I’ve done thinking they’re a bad person.”

In a cross between a thesis defense and “TMZ” episode, McKeon grilled staffers during “pop quiz time” at the DCCC’s research annex. He prodded one about a House district she didn’t know, much to her embarrassment. “It’s OK, you’re new,” McKeon quipped. “So, fun fact and announcement. We now care about [this district]. So can we start a clip book?”

The windowless conference room has a trophy wall of multicolored, highlighted news clips, organized by region, of successfully planted research in local and national publications. Down the hall, McKeon stores the final books haphazardly on a shelf in one of his two offices.

Not every challenger receives the DCCC research treatment. Departments jointly decide which races merit the committee’s time, attention and resources.

Ironically, some of the most obvious and ethically challenged targets don’t have books. Why, DCCC officials argue, should they waste time and resources if the candidates’ scandals are on the front page of their local newspaper every week?

Then there are the unfinished tomes. The DCCC gambles on the wrong candidate to win the primary, a contender drops out, or a Member retires.

In the 2008 cycle, the DCCC finished an exhaustive 1,200 pages for 10-term Rep. Jim Walsh’s (R-N.Y.) book. He retired the next day.

They call them dead books, and so far there are a couple this year — including Johnson. The Republican suddenly dropped out one month after the primary — and a few weeks after the DCCC sent Pullum to Springfield to finish his 543-page book.

Occasionally, Pullum still sees his quirky research subject around Capitol Hill. Johnson doesn’t know the 24-year-old from any other young staffer, but Pullum describes his reaction as giddy.

“I have this real desire to be like, ‘How’s it going, buddy? Let’s talk about your diet,’” Pullum said. “It’s all these bizarre things that you know.”