“If it’s our word versus our opponent’s, no one will believe it,” added Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, whose firm Hamilton Campaigns hired a senior staff member to head an opposition research department following the 2006 elections. “The goal is to have that validation.”
Getting the media to take the bait has gotten easier with the emergence of blogs.
If the parties have partial information or a “nontroversy,” in the words of one researcher, that they know a traditional reporter isn’t likely to write about, they’ll give it to a partisan blogger who is friendlier to their cause. Party operatives know that many political reporters are more likely to cite a blog post than take information fed to them out of a research book.
In general, there are no specific rules about how research can be shared between the committees and candidates. Once the independent expenditure arms of the committees are established, the two sides of the wall are prohibited from coordinating with each other. But when it comes to research, both parties appear to have found a way to communicate without coordinating.
Since sharing public information isn’t considered coordination, all four Senate and House campaign committees appear to be utilizing a network of public websites to communicate messages by highlighting opposition research.
In some cases, the sites look like boilerplate pages available through the committees’ main pages, including the “Meet the Republicans” section of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s website. Clicking on a race through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2010 races map takes you to a paragraph and three bullet points about the race.
House Republicans appear to be using micro sites that include a Democratic incumbent’s name. For example nyefacts.org is used for information about Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.). The National Republican Senatorial Committee has a series of sites that can be found by inserting a state as a subdomain — for example kentucky.nrsc.org.
The websites seem innocuous but are actively read by party strategists on both sides of the aisle. Staffers in each committee are assigned to combing the sites each morning.
“There is nothing illegal about it,” according to one GOP insider. “Both sides are doing it.”
In the end, between the websites and doing due diligence on their own candidates, there are few surprises when it comes to what messages and attacks end up in television ads. It often comes down to execution, the “weight” of the message — or how much money is behind an ad — and the mood of the electorate.
By the time it gets to the airwaves, “it’s been tested,” according to one Democratic strategist. “We know what works and what doesn’t.”
Television stations are not permitted to censor candidate ads. Candidates can be sued for libel, but a television station cannot pull down the ads. Stations can be held responsible for the content of ads from outside groups, so those get challenged often and sometimes taken down.
But the quality of the ads at the end of campaign often hinges on the quality of the research at the beginning.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with Faye, a pot belly pig, after a news conference held by Citizens Against Government Waste at the Phoenix Park Hotel to release the 2015 Congressional Pig Book which identifies pork-barrel spending in Congress, May 13, 2015.