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.
“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.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.