By Krystal Ramirez, Beatriz Bechelli, and Julia Wilton
Imagine that you are a campaign manager, and your candidate is down 5 points in the polls. You know you have a strong message, but you’re up against a well-known opponent with significant endorsements.
A research report hits your inbox: your opponent is not who they say they are. After patiently combing through court filings, property records, past public statements, and even old yearbooks, research has uncovered new facts that voters will be keen to learn. It changes the game, and a new strategy emerges.
Looking for an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses has been a key aspect of political campaigns for centuries. To this day, opposition research, or “oppo,” remains one of the most vital, yet misunderstood, aspects of any competitive campaign for office.
History offers some examples of the impact oppo can have on a political race. The revelation of past sexual misconduct allegations has abruptly ended promising congressional campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans. Likewise, issues related to candidates’ personal and professional track records have, at times, overshadowed policy platforms as central talking points of past U.S. presidential races.
Data from recent election cycles shows a more diverse, and oftentimes younger, pool of candidates now running for office against incumbents at all levels of government. Many of these individuals are first-time candidates. Especially in the current political climate, understanding the importance and core principles of opposition research is more important than ever for these candidates to effectively run for, and win, political office.
Despite oppo’s fundamental role in shaping campaigns, for some, the thought of engaging professional researchers still evokes a “political operative” stereotype of dubious tricks to dig up dirt on a political opponent. These are four of the most common myths preventing campaigns from employing an effective oppo strategy.
No matter the level of office sought – whether a local position or the presidency of the United States – all candidates should consider research a fundamental starting point when launching their campaigns.
At its core, oppo is aimed at gathering information in order to compare and contrast candidates. It is a vital tool used to inform decision-making about messaging, polling, and other elements of a campaign that will help to shape public opinion and media coverage.
While this process may uncover negative information, when done right, it also provides a broader examination of the opposing candidate and a foundation for building the campaign’s central “thesis.” This “thesis” is the argument that the campaign can use to convince voters why they may, or may not, want to support a certain candidate. Campaigns are about storytelling, and research should be the underpinning of crafting a narrative against an opponent.
In the case of self-oppo, research is aimed at identifying a candidate’s own vulnerabilities, in order to better anticipate and refute attacks during the course of a campaign. Before going after a political opponent, it is imperative to first “know thyself.”
Oppo has unfortunately garnered a stigma for being “sleazy” or “playing dirty.” But true opposition research does not involve hacking, breaking and entering, or any other illegal or unethical activity. Opposition research is conducted by professional investigators using public records, and a legitimate firm will adhere to strict standards of integrity.
Some may think that researchers are dumpster diving or having “back alley” meetings, when in fact there is a treasure trove of information available in open sources, much of which is readily accessible online. From campaign finance filings, to criminal history and property records, there is much an experienced investigator can unearth without resorting to tactics for which opposition research is oftentimes unfavorably characterized as “the dark underbelly of political campaigns.”
Moreover, opposition research is not about discrediting an opponent with slanderous or libelous accusations. It does not involve presenting unconfirmed allegations as fact, nor does it involve other unscrupulous conduct. Instead, oppo is based on documented evidence found in open sources that can be corroborated by journalists and others. Oppo is not useful if it is not accurate and grounded in fact.
Given the financial constraints of their budgets, many campaigns believe that engaging professional researchers is too expensive. They therefore decide to have junior staff, like interns, or even volunteers, conduct oppo. Many folks consider themselves amateur Internet sleuths; however, there’s more to it than Googling around. Consider this – would you ask an intern or campaign volunteer to conduct polling, create an ad, or lead debate prep? Probably not. Similarly, engaging experienced research experts is invaluable.
Professional investigators who conduct research for a living know what to look for, and where to look for it. Effective research has evolved to be more than simply compiling “votes and quotes,” and regularly involves sifting through highly complex business filings or court documents, for instance. Even gathering information, such as filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, can be quite nuanced.
Working with a research firm can help to avoid making erroneous claims that lead to embarrassing headlines for the campaign.
Ideally, every campaign would have an in-house research team. However, given the reality of limited funds, many campaigns will need to partner with an outside firm. But, not all firms are created equal. Some shops will provide a “data dump” of findings rather than actionable information. What is ultimately most useful to a campaign, particularly to its communications and digital teams, is a narrative that can be conveyed to voters and the media.
Additionally, what can set a firm apart is its ability to adapt tailored projects for a campaign that go beyond a “cookie cutter” research book. A successful oppo research approach targets specific local concerns that may be especially salient for a campaign’s unique context. The best firms become, in effect, an extension of the campaign.
When shaping their strategy, successful campaigns will choose the right partner to unlock the information advantage that political research like oppo, and self-oppo, can offer.