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Digging for Dirt
Comments () | Published October 4, 2010

It’s no secret that political operatives feed reporters damaging information about opponents. But the 2010 election cycle has seen more campaigns than ever admitting to, and in some cases bragging about, their opposition-research handiwork. A part of the consulting world that was once considered the dark underbelly of political campaigns is no longer hidden. “Oppo” researchers are emerging from the unmarked strip malls where they’ve long toiled.

“In the old days, the opponents of our clients would hold press conferences denouncing our hiring—just our existence would be controversial,” says Jason Stanford, founder of Texas-based Stanford Research, a Democratic firm. “But there is a real openness now.”

It’s hard to keep a secret in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Stanford believes the rise of social networking has made candidates more open. “The flow of information can’t be bottled up,” he says. “There’s an expectation that all information available to a campaign will be out there.”

Larry Zilliox, a private investigator based in Bristow, Virginia, whose firm trains opposition researchers of both parties, says there are often misconceptions about what such researchers do. “It’s just research,” Zilliox says. “It shouldn’t be cloak-and-dagger. In the past, everybody was so hush-hush about it that it automatically took on this taint of undercover work.”

Says Dennis Johnson, who was a Democratic opposition researcher before joining George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management: “It still gets back to the basics—find something that shows this guy is a phony. Absolutely the worst is lying about your military résumé.

“Policy stuff—unless it’s the hot buttons like abortion or gun control—doesn’t work too well. It’s the personal stuff that matters. It’s really getting down to the fundamentals of whether this is the type of person you want in office.”

Recent campaign cycles have demonstrated what opposition research that’s done right can yield, says Eric Ohlsen, a Democratic opposition researcher based in Alexandria.

“Campaigns are becoming more transparent about opposition research. After watching what the Swift Boat Vets did to Senator [John] Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, candidates realized that for them to have the ability to do the same thing to their opponents, they would need professional opposition research.”

Many opposition researchers still prefer to remain in the shadows. And some people who start off bragging about their use of opposition research learn to dial it back. In Connecticut, Senate candidate McMahon’s operation quickly realized that dirt-digging can leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters. Shortly after boasting of the May campaign hit on opponent Blumenthal’s military service, McMahon’s campaign scrubbed its Web site clean of any reference to its role.

“There’s a fine line for candidates in using research,” says Alex Vogel, former deputy counsel for the Republican National Committee. “In the ideal world, you want the information to come out but you don’t want to be the source. There’s always a concern it blows back on you and makes you look bad for bringing it up.”

GOP consultant Darren Eustance, owner of Malleus Political Strategies in Raleigh, North Carolina, puts it more bluntly: “In my experience, oppo is still treated like the political-consultant equivalent of the crazy uncle—everyone knows he’s there, but they don’t like to talk about him. I still sign nondisclosure agreements with all my clients forbidding me from publicly divulging any association with their campaigns.”

Digging up dirt and highlighting unflattering aspects of the opposition’s life have a long political history. In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson’s opponents unearthed his marriage records, seeking to imply that the hero of the Battle of New Orleans was an adulterer for marrying Rachel Robards in 1791 before she was legally divorced from her first husband. Jackson won the White House over President John Quincy Adams anyway, avenging a bitter loss four years earlier. But the opposition researchers’ work may have taken a toll: Rachel died shortly before Jackson took office—a result, he contended, of the stress of having her honor called into question.

Even Abraham Lincoln wasn’t above engaging in oppo research. In preparation for Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, combed the Illinois State Library to collect “all the ammunition Mr. Lincoln saw fit to gather” against his Democratic rival.

The art of opposition research came into its own during the 1988 presidential election when Massachusetts criminal Willie Horton was turned into a household name by the campaign of Republican nominee George H.W. Bush. But the idea originated with a primary rival to eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis: Senator Al Gore of Tennessee.

At a New York Daily News debate in the spring of 1988, Gore tied Massachusetts governor Dukakis to “weekend passes” for criminals in state prisons. But Gore didn’t mention the name of William Horton—later shortened to “Willie”—who, while serving a life sentence for murder without possibility of parole, was the beneficiary of a Massachusetts weekend-furlough program. Horton didn’t return from his furlough and ultimately committed assault, armed robbery, and rape.

After Vice President Bush won the Republican nomination, James Pinkerton, an aide to Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, got the debate transcript through the LexisNexis database. Pinkerton had no idea what Gore was talking about, so he called Bush campaign aide Andrew Card, a former Massachusetts state legislator. Card said the prison-furlough issue had been a huge deal in the Bay State for a year, which piqued the Bush campaign’s curiosity. Pinkerton and colleagues received faxes and FedExes from Boston on the case, and a few days later Pinkerton took it to Atwater.

“He got it immediately,” Pinkerton says. Shortly thereafter, the Bush campaign did a focus group in Paramus, New Jersey, “and could see that the issue, when explained to regular people, was an absolute crusher.”

Bush 41 first used Willie Horton in a speech to the Texas Republican convention in June 1988. Later that year, the Bush campaign began airing a now-famous “revolving door” ad, but without a picture of Horton. An independent GOP-affiliated group ran a similar commercial with Horton’s picture included.

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