Opposition Research and Self Research For Your Campaign
Opposition research, or “oppo” for short, is something that every campaign needs to think about even if it as simple as doing a message box exercise or using Google.
Opposition research can be done by a specific type of political consulting firm. They specialize entirely in finding things out about people that a simple Google search would not turn up. (Though they can definitely get details on all Google-able offenses, too.) Opposition research political consulting firms subscribe to more advanced search engines; regularly compiling government documents using FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to look for homeownership, tax documents, arrest records, and other legal documents. These folks will know if your opponent has lied about their primary residence in just a few keystrokes. In short, an opposition research political consulting firm is important to have on your team.
Magnum PI is not a Political Opposition Researcher:
Opposition researchers, it’s important to note, are not PI’s or police detectives, and you should leave any paternity questions up to Maury Povitch. Great opposition research firms will turn up stuff you didn’t even know about your opponent (a DUI a few years back that no one noticed is a personal favorite) that is provable, germane to the campaign, and creates damning contrast for voters. There are two different kinds of bad opposition research political consulting firms, in my opinion. First, those who make wild accusations without the proof to back it up are my least favorite. You may have heard that your opponent doesn’t pay their taxes, but unless your opposition research team can dig up an audit, summons, conviction, or lien, hell, even a newspaper article asserting it, you can’t use it. Don’t let them tell you otherwise or that you can use it because “they’re just waiting on the proof.” Second, bad opposition research firms won’t have the bandwidth to perform specialized research. Whether they let their Lexus Nexus subscription lapse or have never heard of FOIA, they don’t give you anything that you couldn’t get on your own while charging you through the nose.
Doing Opposition Research is Not a Guarantee:
Sometimes opposition research political consulting firms don’t turn up anything in their searches. It’s rare, but totally possible. You might have a squeaky-clean opponent, or worse, one that’s really good at hiding stuff. Regardless, it's worth the investment to hire professionals to make that determination for you and to know that you have all the tools at your disposal to create good contrast in order to win your campaign.
Can Opposition Research Backfire?
One thing we hear a lot of when we tell people what we do for a living is that every political campaign is too negative. It’s all mud-slinging and personal attacks in every political campaign, we’ve heard, and why don’t you just focus on the issues? Well, we mostly agree, and we do generally stick only to the issues. But we also think that when candidates have a relevant piece of information about an issue in their opponents’ past, it can be useful to show voters. A candidate for Sheriff who breaks the law? What about an Attorney General with multiple campaign finance violations? These could be construed by the opposing political campaign as “personal attacks,” but we would argue they are germane to the election and important for voters to know.
How Do You Decide What Opposition Research to Use in a Political Campaign?
If you’ve hired a good opposition research firm, they will likely find a few things from your opponent’s past that could be used in your campaign. A brief tax lien, poor voting history, etc. We would advise a political campaign that, unless there is a true pattern, policy hypocrisy, or extreme instance, don’t get into minor details. It’s not worth it. You’ll look petty and invite them to hit back. We also would tell a political campaign that the same holds true for spouses. Unless the candidate’s spouse has something really, seriously egregious in their background, don’t go there. No political campaign can put that toothpaste back into the tube.
What Do You Do When Opposition Research Goes Wrong?
No matter how hard we try, there can be mistakes in the opposition research. Double check the research before it goes out and work with your researcher to make sure they fact check all communications.
- Immediately own the mistake as just that and apologize.
- If it’s really bad, someone on your staff may resign/be let go.
- Quickly remove any mention of the failed attack from all of your materials.
- Don’t mention it again. Take a whole new tack.
Make sure you fact check all communications: One of the best uses of an opposition research firm is to fact check your political communications when you are using the research, as well as your opponent’s communication. Whether in a poll, a mail piece, or a TV spot, make sure your researcher agrees with how the research is being used.
Don’t Forget to do Self-Research:
Many candidates will do research on their opponents. What many first time (and second and third time) candidates don’t do is get a self-research book done on themselves. Why, one may ask, would I need research done on me? I know my background. Here are a few reasons why self-research is much more important than it may seem:
- We don’t always remember everything: That tax lien from 15 years ago you blocked from your memory after countless hours spent on hold with the IRS? Yeah, your campaign team is going to want to know about that. We all have spotty memories, especially when it comes to our own lives. Best to leave the past up to the professionals.
- What you thought wasn’t a big deal could be a powerful negative: Holding public office is tricky—and there are plenty of pitfalls along the way. One “present” vote on a politically motivated abortion bill in a blue state, with proper context, may seem reasonable. But, without that context, that vote gives fodder to your opponent. And NARAL. And Planned Parenthood.
- If your researcher can find it, so will your opponent: You need to know what’s out there, your digital footprint is a real thing, and these days, your past can take on many forms from tweets to articles to an old MySpace or dating page. If your research team finds out about it, you’ll need to be prepared to respond because that means your opponent can find out about it, too.
- It’s 2020, folks: We live in the digital age. If you have anything unscrupulous or otherwise in your past, and we all do, you need to know what’s out there from an objective standpoint so you can figure out how to best respond. The smart campaigns do the self-research and create a proactive strategy around it. And the bad campaigns become fodder for late night talk show hosts when caught unaware.
Bottom line: Make sure you are thoughtful about self-research and opposition research. Plan early enough to be able to do it and make sure you fact check all the material you and your opponent send out.