As voters are being bombarded with political attack ads in the lead-up to November, few likely realize that what appears as a fine-print citation in a 30-second television commercial is the result of months of opposition research and an orchestrated communication effort by parties and candidates.
In a cycle where the environment heavily favors the GOP, Democrats are increasingly having to rely on tax liens, divorce records and lawsuits in their attempts to discredit Republican candidates — many of whom are running as “outsiders” who have not sought political office before.
Republicans, meanwhile, have focused on culling the voting records of incumbents they seek to drive from office.
In each case, the parties rely on sophisticated opposition research operations that began well before the cycle’s playing field was formed. The process is labor-intensive and hardly carries with it glory or public recognition.
“We’re going through and getting the facts, not going through the trash,” according to one Democratic researcher. While some candidates hire private investigators, the majority of the research is coordinated by the campaign committees.
Since opposition research is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, it’s one of the major services that the campaign committees provide to a candidate. If a campaign is particularly sophisticated or well-funded, wants to go deeper or is involved in a competitive primary, the candidate might contract out more research.
In large part, the goal is to gather as much public information as possible: “Votes and quotes,” as one researcher put it. If the information can’t be found on the Internet, the committees put a staffer on a plane to retrieve it.
In the field, the standard rule is to be discreet.
“Do not engage in any action or conversation that you would not want to read about on the front page of a major newspaper,” according to the “Ten Commandments of Opposition Research” listed on the third page of a “Field Research Guidebook” obtained from one of the committees.
If researching, instead of the research, becomes the story, “it says you’re not good at winning on the issues,” according to one party operative.
Eventually, all the research is compiled into a book, sometimes an actual binder with appropriate tabs, other times an electronic file that is passed on to candidates.
But “the book” is just the first step in the process.
“Just the list of votes does nothing,” according to one Democratic researcher. “The difference between good research and bad research is a comprehensive story.”
The goal is to develop a pattern, similar to what Democrats have tried all cycle to do in Louisiana by attempting to portray Sen. David Vitter (R) as anti-woman.
“If it looks like an isolated incident, then the candidate or committee will get push-back,” the researcher added. “It has to build into the narrative of who they are.”
Whether it’s in the hands of the committees or the candidates, the research is then often tested in polling. What is often construed as “push-polling” is actually just message testing to a small sample of voters. Getting the information out to more voters is another question.
“You want to get it in print,” one GOP operative said, echoing other party strategists on both sides of the aisle who stressed the importance of third-party validators.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.