News & Politics

Digging for Dirt

Opposition researchers are an accepted, if not beloved, reality of modern politics. More out in the open, they're playing big roles in 2010 races.

This spring, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal seemed to have a clear path to the US Senate. He’d angled for an opening to Washington for years, and when longtime senator Chris Dodd announced his retirement, Blumenthal became the anointed Democratic nominee in the deep-blue Nutmeg State.

That is, until a bombshell New York Times article on May 17 detailed a series of Blumenthal speeches citing his military service during the Vietnam era. “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam,” Blumenthal said at a 2008 ceremony honoring veterans and senior citizens who sent presents to soldiers overseas. “And you exemplify it. Whatever we think about the war, whatever we call it—Afghanistan or Iraq—we owe our military men and women unconditional support.”

The problem, the Times noted, was that although Blumenthal had been a member of the Marine Corps Reserve after college, he had never served in Vietnam. He obtained at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970, including one to serve as a special assistant to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Blumenthal, the Times reported, “took repeated steps that enabled him to avoid going to war.”

The revelation of Blumenthal’s misstatements threw his campaign off track and sent him scrambling to explain his military history before veterans’ groups across Connecticut.

Blumenthal’s Republican Senate opponent, Linda McMahon, quickly took credit for having fed the damaging information to the Times.

“McMahon Strikes Blumenthal in NYT Article,” the McMahon camp proclaimed on its Web site that day. “The Blumenthal Bombshell comes at the end of more than 2 months of deep, persistent research by Republican Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign.”

McMahon, the wealthy former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, told a Hartford television station, “I can tell you we had some research, we shared it, and I think we accomplished the story.”

Less than two weeks later, the Washington Post reported that Republican Illinois congressman and Senate candidate Mark Kirk had admitted embellishing his military record. Kirk claimed to have received the US Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year award for his service with NATO forces during the Serbian conflict in the late 1990s; a different citation was awarded to his whole unit.

The story made clear the source of the unflattering information about Kirk: “The Post’s inquiries were sparked by complaints from a representative of state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Kirk’s Democratic opponent in the Illinois Senate race.”

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.

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, 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.