Your Skeletons Are Showing: How Opposition Researchers Find Dirt on Politicians

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"Opposition researchers" are the people responsible for digging up dirt on elected officials and candidates seeking office.
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Running for political office is a dirty business. And if you’re going to throw your hat in the ring, you better be prepared to grab a shovel and dig.

That's where opposition researchers come in. They work around the clock trying to find dirt that can be used against a candidate in an election. But how deep do you have to dig before you uncover a skeleton?

Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich put that question to Jacob Daniels, a veteran Republican opposition researcher, for the third installment in our series, "Road Warriors: Life on the Campaign Trail."

While they sometimes team up with investigative journalists, Daniels says that opposition researchers often spend their days poring over news articles, legal filings, blogs, videos, and social media posts — anything that can be used against a potential challenger.

“We’re always looking for that silver bullet moment—that piece of information that you know is going to be really detrimental to your opponent's campaign,” he says. “And there’s also the more mundane components of opposition research, which includes [establishing] a general picture of who the person is that your candidate is running against. A lot of times that’s really boring information, like how they voted on certain things.”

These oppo men, as they’re known in the industry, aren’t just looking for sex scandals or drunk driving records. They’ll take details on financial loans, rocky business decisions, and even bad breakups from decades past.

“The payment, really, for an opposition researcher is to be able to see the information that they had to dig through for hours pop up on the TV screen and know that that information is going to help your candidate,” says Daniels, an attorney and senior partner at the firm Oregon Research Consultants. 

Daniels was able to come up with such an advertisement (below) when he was working for Chris Dudley, the 2010 Republican candidate for Oregon governor. He got his “silver bullet moment” when his team found that Dudley’s opponent, John Kitzhaber, had a “secret loan.”

“When you get something like that, oh goodness — it gives you goosebumps and you get a rush of adrenaline,” Daniels says. “That’s the drug that we live on in opposition research land.”

“I hear that commercial, and to this day, I’m so proud to have been part of that,” Daniels adds.

But opposition researchers are also looking for anything that can be used against their own candidate, a tactic to help a campaign avoid a public relations nightmare. And Daniels says he’s heard just about everything.

“Sometimes we have to transition to a conversation like, ‘Maybe politics isn’t for you?’” he says. “It’s a sport that is brutal, but I’ve found that it can be even more difficult for the spouse and the children to have to deal with — their mom or dad getting beat up in the media.”

It may be an understatement to call politics a brutal sport. As countless digital breadcrumbs are left behind in the modern age, Zwillich asked Daniels if oppo men function more like foot soldiers in a war than NFL linebackers.

“We find everything, and we throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks,” Daniels says. “I don’t like how dirty politics has gotten, but, as you were saying, it’s an arms race. If we’re not doing it, we’re going to be in trouble, just like if the other side isn’t doing it, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble as well.”

Many may be wondering: “How does this guy sleep at night?” The trick, Daniels says, is to try to be as tactful and as truthful as possible and — maybe — feel bad about it after an election is over.

“In order to actually do this type of work, you have to put yourself into a mental state where you just treat it like warfare,” he says. “You just kind of get into that back and forth, and maybe after you feel bad about it. But when you’re in war, it’s all about making sure that you’re protecting the people around you, namely your client.”