Opposition Research, or How Knowledge is Power

by The Campaign Workshop

Opposition research - green chat bubble with a thumbs down and red chat bubble with a thumbs up

Why Opposition Research Should Be on Your Campaign "To-Do" List 

Can I do my own opposition research?
You may think opposition research is really only something Independent Expenditures need, but that isn’t the case. Opposition research can serve a purpose on every type of campaign. Although Google searches can provide some insight to an opponent’s background and any news coverage, there are entire political consulting firms that specialize in opposition work. These firms subscribe to more advanced search engines and regularly compile government documents using FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to look for homeownership, tax documents, arrest records, and other legal documents. These firms will be able to quickly give you a run-down of opponents or delve deeper to uncover more important information if needed. If you are able, hiring these specialized consultants will be worth the investment. 

What should I look out for in an opposition research firm?
Opposition researchers should find information that is provable, useful to your campaign, and creates an undeniable contrast (in your favor) to voters. But what should an opposition research firm not do? There are two different kinds of bad opposition research political consulting firms. First, those who make wild accusations without the proof to back it up. 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, lien, or 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- all while charging your campaign.  

Does opposition research guarantee anything? 
Although rare, it is possible that an opposition research political consulting turns up nothing. Maybe your opponent truly has a clean record- or perhaps has expertly hidden records. 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? 
It is a common opinion amongst voters that campaigns are overall too negative and focused on mudslinging rather than addressing the real issues people care about. Here at The Campaign Workshop, we agree in large part- with an important note. If an opponent has a past indiscretion, crime, or otherwise questionable past that may be indicative of their character and ability to serve the public, we believe the voter should be made aware. Uncovering ethically troublesome events that directly impact an opponent’s ability to serve the will of the people is a worthwhile cause. 

How do I 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, to not get into minor details. It’s not worth it. You’ll risk looking 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.

What do I do when opposition research goes wrong? 
No matter how hard we try, there can be mistakes in opposition research. Double check the research before it goes out and work with your researcher to make sure they fact check all communications. 

  1. Immediately own the mistake as just that and apologize.
  2. Quickly remove any mention of the failed attack from all your materials.
  3. Don’t mention it again. 

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 candidates don’t do is get a self-research book done on themselves. This may seem odd at first- after all, you know your own 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 memory? 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 2022: We live in the digital age. If you have anything potentially problematic or otherwise in your past, you need to know what’s out there from an objective standpoint so you can figure out how to best respond. The smartest campaigns do the self-research and create a proactive strategy around it. And the bad campaigns become punchlines for late night talk show hosts. 

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.  

Do you have more opposition research and self-research questions? Ask them here!