Learning to love oppo researchers, whistle-blowers of democracy

GW professor guides course in the not-so-dark arts

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Mr. Berg, the students asserted, is a fiscal flip-flopper. An entitlement-slashing senior boogeyman. An Earth-hating puppet of Big Oil. An out-of-touch plutocrat who not only favors tax cuts for millionaires such as himself but also has voted against raising the minimum wage in his state — despite being caught on camera not knowing how much the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) actually is.

“That’s bad,” Mr. Di Resta said. “When I do defensive work with candidates, I always ask them: How much is the price of a loaf of bread? Of a gallon of milk? Of a gallon of gas? They have to know that. They will be asked.”

For their midterm exam, the students were asked to come up with a series of arguments — termed “hits” — against each candidate. The catch? Each hit had to be rooted in documented, verifiable facts — such as Mr. Berg accepting campaign donations from gas companies, or his past votes to cut Medicare, roll back senior prescription drug benefits and raise taxes on nursing homes.

The exam simulated the real-life work of opposition researchers, who spend inordinate amounts of time wading through voting records, speeches, statements, articles, video clips, and public and business records, compiling comprehensive records of candidates that are sifted and sorted for possible political vulnerabilities.

Has a candidate been sued? Has he paid his taxes? If he has already held elected office, what’s his voting record?

Also: Is there laughably awkward-looking video of him driving around in a battle tank, a la 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis?

“We do due diligence,” said Dennis Yedwab, a longtime Democratic opposition researcher and former business partner of Mr. Di Resta. “I’ve spent a huge amount of my life sitting in libraries, looking through massive amounts of public documents, trying to figure out how to tell the story my campaign wants to tell.”

Once opposition researchers compile a final report on a candidate — also called a “book” (with good reason: John McCain’s 2008 book on Mitt Romney was 200 pages, longer than “Treasure Island”) — the results generally are used by campaign pollsters to test and refine promising lines of political attack.

Sometimes, message massaging isn’t necessary: In 2002, Republican Mike Taylor withdrew from a Senate race in Montana after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee paid for a television spot that featured video footage of the GOP candidate wearing an open-necked shirt and applying lotion to the face of a man in a barber’s chair, culled from an old ad for Mr. Taylor’s beauty supply business.

“They only ran that ad once,” Mr. Di Resta said. “Those of us on the Democratic side still talk about that. The researcher that found it heard a rumor and kept calling around, going and going and going until he had that piece of information. You have to be dogged.

“We call that a silver bullet. But those are very rare. We have members of Congress who have survived sex scandals, who have been arrested. It takes a lot to derail a political career.”

More often, Mr. Di Resta said, opposition researchers find information that helps campaigns shape negative narratives about rival candidates. Forget silver bullets; think death by 1,000 paper cuts, each sheet ripped from the same book.

Case in point? During the 2000 presidential campaign, Republican opposition researchers came across three disparate tidbits that were used to paint Democratic candidate Al Gore as a serial exaggerator at best, a pathological liar at worst:

• Mr. Gore’s expressed belief that he and his wife, Tipper, had served as models for the lead characters in the book and movie “Love Story.”

• Mr. Gore’s statement during a CNN interview that “during my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

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