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Opposition Research 101: From Andrew Jackson to Herman Cain

Friday, November 04, 2011

These days, it wouldn’t be a political primary without some serious skeletons emerging from candidate’s closets.

Opposition research is now an accepted reality of any high-stakes campaign. Campaigns regularly investigate their opposition’s past, their voting record, their legal and especially criminal history, and their medical, educational, and financial background. Steven Brams, Professor of Politics at NYU, explains that most consultant firms work for one party or another, seldom working bipartisan lines.

It's now common for campaigns to hire outside investigators to compile entire dossiers on their opponents (see a sample “oppo book” here). 

Those same firms will compile info on donors, to avoid any embarrassing disclosures later, and even on the candidates themselves—so the campaign will be ready when their opponents unleash their opposition research.

Once the dirty secret of the political campaign world, opposition research firms now openly advertise their services on the web. Firms like the Dawn Group, Hunt Private Investigations, and the Siroff Group now advertise their services digging up dirt on the other guy’s lawsuits and divorces, tax liens, even their dissertations. The firm CompleteCampaign.com makes the case for professional opposition researchers as part of any campaign:

When done wrong, opposition research can cause your campaign headaches, including fatal headaches.  Done right, though, opposition research will be a major contributing factor in your victory. 

Derek Ryan is a political consultant and owner of Ryan Data & Research, a research agency in Austin that works to assist Republican candidates. He says he advices his clients to pay attention to the research his agency does on them, and to be ready to handle anything that the opposing camps may discover.

“That way they can make it a one-to-two news cycle story and have some control over how the story is played out in the media.”

This is where Cain’s campaign, he says, is going terribly wrong. “The more the Cain campaign keeps talking and talking about it, the more the story gets played over and over. If he had just come out with a statement or accepted blame or provided some evidence against the claims, we’d be talking about a new issue now.”

Opposition research is a tradition with a long history. An article in the Washingtonian reports:

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.

Professor Brams said opposition research-whether it was called opposition research at the time or not—has always been a part of politics. 

"You can find pretty salacious things even in 17th century campaigns. Maybe back then they didn't call it sexual harassment, they called it fathering a child, but it was out there."

The article says that opposition research really became a widely-practiced phenomenon in the eighties, when a PAC supporting George Bush’s campaign ran this negative ad against Michael Dukakis. The Bush campaign had sniffed out the story after Dukakis’ primary opponent Al Gore had charged that Dukakis was linked to the practice of weekend furlough passes for prisoners in Massachusetts. During furlough, a prisoner had gone on the rampage, attacking a couple and stealing a car. While Gore didn’t name the prisoner, the allegation caught the attention of Bush’s campaign, and research began.

Ryan says that while the stigma of campaigns digging for dirt on their opponents may have decreased in recent years, there is definitely still a negative stereotype. “A lot of people who do it don’t like to talk about it, it has a negative connotation to it.” But he stresses that the work is important. “It’s important to find out what [candidates] voted on. While it’s glamorous to talk about scandal and affairs, sometimes you really need results to be able to compare and contrast two candidates.”

Now with new campaign financing laws, even less well-funded candidates can get the goods on their opponents. PACs or superPACs can now fund research on behalf of a candidate. Professor Brams says this means even as campaigns may become more open about using opposition research, the ways to obscure a campaign’s connections to the firm doing the research have become even more complex. He says he expects opposition research strategies to be in play for a long time in the future, even as social networking presents candidates with ever more ways to get caught in an embarrassment.

"There's always been negative campaigning; it just has a name now. Studies show it can be effective, so that's why you see so much."

As presidential hopeful Herman Cain deals with allegations of sexual harassment by blaming Rick Perry's campaign, and Perry's campaign, in turn, blames Romney's campaign, here's one thing to keep in mind: Really, they're all doing it. 

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