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

For much of America’s political history, opposition research was done on an ad hoc basis. But as campaigns became more professional and expensive, the technique became institutionalized. For the past dozen years or more, both the Republican and Democratic national committees have employed full-time research directors and maintained databases on opponents.

“In the space of ten years,” says Vogel, now a partner at the lobbying and consulting firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, “we’ve gone from a bunch of people with notebooks scouring county courthouses to a complex, computerized operation. There was a time when people thought it was sneaky. But now it’s acknowledged.”

Sometimes unflattering information is used as a brushback pitch to keep a potential opponent out of a race. Other times, negative scoops are held back until late in a campaign, when they can be deployed to maximum effect.

The full effect of a good opposition-research operation often isn’t clear until after Election Day. In the 2008 cycle, researchers for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama unearthed evidence of John Edwards’s $400 haircuts, billed at his campaign’s expense. Campaign manager David Plouffe writes in his memoir, The Audacity to Win, that he supplied the tip to a reporter. The planted information reinforced the image of Edwards as a preening narcissist, and the North Carolinian was soon out of the race.

The Democratic National Committee this year is taking openness in opposition research to a new level. In June, it launched a Web site to collect damaging recordings of Republicans with the explicit goal of capturing another “macaca moment”—a reference to the video of Virginia Republican senator George Allen calling an Indian-American Democratic videographer that name at a 2006 campaign event, footage credited with contributing to his loss to Democrat Jim Webb.

“Macaca” remains the gold standard of opposition research. And the DNC is betting that its political crowd-sourcing efforts, officially dubbed the Accountability Project, will yield more self-immolations by Republican candidates.

But reeling in a macaca-style big fish is relatively rare. Just as prosecutors chasing corrupt pols rarely get hard evidence of cash being exchanged for legislative favors—or, as in the case of convicted former Louisiana congressman William Jefferson, stored in a home freezer—opposition researchers usually deal with more subtle information that’s tougher to explain in a sound bite.

Fortunately for campaign operatives, they often don’t need to start from scratch. File sharing among political pros in the same parties is common. During the 2008 campaign, Politico obtained a detailed, 63-page dossier of opposition research against Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin that had been compiled by the staff of Tony Knowles, her Democratic opponent in the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial race. The information quickly made its way into Democratic talking points against the new GOP running mate.

Perhaps the most effective use of opposition research this year came in the Republican primary for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District. The seat is a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans, with freshman Democratic congressman Walt Minnick considered among his party’s most endangered incumbents.

Republican strategists thought they had a top recruit in Vaughn Ward, a former CIA operations officer. With an endorsement from Palin, Ward’s nomination over GOP primary rival Raul Labrador, a state representative, seemed inevitable.

But then an Internet video appeared revealing that Ward had lifted campaign lines from President Obama, a bad-enough offense under normal circumstances but particularly damaging in a GOP primary in one of the nation’s reddest states. Things got worse when it came out that Ward didn’t own the pickup truck he’d used in a campaign ad. News stories also noted that he hadn’t disclosed his wife’s income from Fannie Mae while he was bashing bank bailouts. Reporters discovered that he’d once paid his property taxes late. When the votes came in, Ward lost to Labrador by 48 to 39 percent.

Sometimes potent information simply isn’t unearthed. Illinois Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk had served in the House since 2001 and survived a series of close races for his congressional seat. But questions about his military-service claims never arose.

In the pre-Internet era, opposition research was laborious work. Digging up tax liens, civil lawsuits, divorce petitions, and other potentially damaging documents took days or weeks; now they often can be discovered with a few keystrokes on LexisNexis and other databases.

“I’ve been in steamy country courthouses in southern Alabama in the middle of summer,” says GW’s Dennis Johnson, who in his spare time runs CongressionalBadboys.com, a bipartisan look at congressional scandals, corruption, and malfeasance. Now, he says, what used to take weeks and months to research is often available online in minutes.

But sometimes the juiciest documents aren’t available on the Internet. The 2009 campaign of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell had to endure weeks of scrutiny after the Washington Post reported on his two-decades-old master’s thesis at Regent University, in which he outlined his conservative social views and spelled out how they should be incorporated into GOP governance. Somebody knew about that document and likely tipped off the reporter, who looked up the 93-page document, says Zilliox, the private investigator.

“You can know everything there is to know about the ‘intertubes,’ ” observes Eustance. “But if you don’t know how to use a microfilm machine or walk into a county courthouse in East Sweet Nowhere, USA, and find old trial records and tax liens, you shouldn’t be doing oppo, period.”

Because of their growing number and prominence, opposition researchers are encountering a new challenge: Government officials are increasingly hostile to Freedom of Information Act queries and official-records requests at the state and local levels. They’re now asking researchers for political affiliations and client names. In part this is a reaction to researchers’ requests for catchall paper trails on opponents, which can clog a system. But more and more, researchers must budget time and money for obtaining public information. There seems to be little fear of retribution among FOIA bureaucrats for breaking the law by withholding documents, say veteran opposition researchers.

News stories in the closing weeks of this year’s campaign cycle will document the shortcomings and deficiencies of candidates. Behind each negative article there’s likely an opposition researcher who made the reporter aware of the information.

Linda McMahon’s campaign’s admission of playing a role in advancing a negative story about her opponent violated an unwritten rule. Political operatives and reporters frequently engage in a Kabuki dance concerning negative information about opponents and rarely let the public in on the details. It’s almost the journalistic equivalent of a code of silence. Reporters take tips and research from political operatives, but it has been considered bad form to admit to doing so.

Now, with the proliferation of ways candidates can get information to the public, reporters may be a less necessary part of the transaction. Bloggers and other nontraditional journalists may be more than happy to “out” their sources of negative information.

And social-media users who might someday be interested in running for office could unwittingly be helping future opponents.

“You’ll find that Facebook and Twitter are feeding the opposition-research files,” says Tyler Harber, a GOP consultant. “A lot of people who will run for office in the next five or ten years are using these tools—and it could come back to bite them.”

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.

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