What’s the Trump campaign’s biggest asset right now? Sure, long term, a growing economy is the president’s greatest strength. But this is primary season, and the line between allies and opponents is often blurred as candidates vie for position and political advantage.
With the entry of front-runner Joe Biden, probably the last Democratic candidate has entered the race. The field is set, and the games are about to begin in earnest.
And into this hot box primary environment enter Donald Trump’s new best friends: the Democratic presidential campaigns’ opposition research teams, whose behind-the-scenes labors will drive the early narrative of the primary campaign and winnow the field.
It’s not going to be pretty. It never is.
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It certainly wasn’t for the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, with the possible exception of Trump. Early in that primary contest, few of Trump’s opponents or the media took his unusual candidacy seriously. While I wasn’t in the backroom of the opposing campaigns, my educated guess is that the bulk of the opposition research done by them was focused on candidates who were seen to be more viable.
Even as Trump began to show strength, one by one the rest of the pack took each other on in debates and ads, making the assumption that the candidate left standing against Trump would end up with the nomination.
Although it’s early in the campaign season, we’ve already seen a few of the Democratic presidential hopefuls take some incoming fire with the fingerprints of oppo researchers all over them.
Biden’s gaffes. Beto’s checkered past. Harris’ tough love truancy policy and Bernie’s praise for the Moscow subway system.
At this stage, oppo research is more likely leaked to a friendly reporter than through a direct attack by one candidate toward another.
As the debates begin, we’re likely to see candidates use oppo research to set themselves apart from the others by raising the weaknesses of opposing candidates — real or perceived. When advertising kicks in, we’ll see even more negative attacks. In that context, it’s important for both voters and the media to understand what constitutes appropriate opposition research, because the fact is all opposition research isn’t created equal.
While what is considered fair is often in the eye of the beholder, voter or reporter, there are lines that should not be crossed. There’s a big difference between digging for dirt and analyzing an opponent’s record and all that entails. Trolling for personal or family transgressions having little or nothing to do with a candidate’s ability to serve isn’t the same as scouring past statements or actions that do reflect on a candidate’s credibility and beliefs.
Legislative votes are fair game, and so is past criminal behavior. Anything posted on Facebook or Twitter is up for grabs, but affairs of the heart … dicey. Dumb comments or misstatements made an hour or a couple of decades ago are always fair game. “Use by” dates don’t seem to apply to most oppo research, especially in today’s gotcha environment.
If you said it, you own it, which means you have to explain it. This puts candidates like Biden and Bernie Sanders, whose careers span more than one societal shift, at a disadvantage when it comes to younger opponents with far shorter political careers and the statements and actions that go with them.
Making used car dealers look good
Journalists love to characterize opposition research as a “dark art,” giving it an air of sinister mystique, but most oppo research is much more mundane. Today’s oppo researchers spend their evenings and weekends with their best pal, Google. They spend their time poring over voting records and Facebook posts, financial disclosure reports and tax returns, legal settlements and high school yearbooks, looking for a nugget, that needle in the haystack, that will change the trajectory of the campaign, do in their candidate’s chief opponent or damage the front-runner.
The means to that end these days is finding a sufficiently “shiny object” with the legs to blow up social media, entice political reporters to cover the issue and win the news cycle, at least for a nanosecond or two.
But as a former oppo researcher, it’s the misuse of what is a critical component of all campaigns — research — that still gets under my skin. Was Mitt Romney so depraved that he was willing to sacrifice a woman’s life to make a buck, as Democrats charged in 2012? Did Harry Reid really have a eureka moment and propose giving Viagra to child molesters in prison, as Republicans charged in 2010? Of course not, in both cases.
Too many campaigns and advertising consultants use opposition research to focus attacks on the personal, not on policy differences. They tell us why one candidate is not qualified rather than why the other is the better choice.
But over recent election cycles, driven by social media, they have learned that people who lob the biggest, most personal bombs are the ones who get the attention from a media obsessed with the negative. Gossip gets more eyeballs and clicks than good ideas. We’ve reached a point where political argument has devolved into a mutual race to the bottom.
That’s how we got to where we are today as the 2020 presidential race starts to heat up. It’s why, in part, political discourse in America has become so abysmal and in 2016 we saw the two national parties nominate two presidential candidates with the highest negatives in recent memory.
When it comes to political debate in the age of social media, the argument isn’t, “My opponent is wrong on the issues and here’s proof.” It’s, “My opponent is a sociopath and I’ve got the dirt to prove it.”
When campaigns of both parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars destroying their opponents in this way, is it any surprise that voters hold politicians in such low regard?
It’s a sad commentary on the state of politics today that so many campaigns believe that what they have to say about their opponent has more value than what they have to say about their own candidates’ ideas and proposals.
Ethical opposition research must be an essential component of every campaign to give candidates the tools to differentiate themselves from their opponents. But the extreme hyperbole, often driven by oppo research, that seems to have infected our political system both erodes the confidence of Americans in the democratic system and discourages qualified candidates from running.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.