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Learning to love oppo researchers, whistle-blowers of democracy
GW professor guides course in the not-so-dark arts
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“Anybody can find that someone has tax liens and didn’t or doesn’t pay their taxes,” Mr. Di Resta said. “But to take things that have nothing to do with each other and get it to stick? That’s talent. That’s damn good stuff.
“Someone had to read those thousands of articles and think, ‘I see a pattern here.’ And then get the campaign to listen. There’s an art to research.”
Opposition research is hardly new. According to the book “We’re With Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics,” Thomas Jefferson hired a Scotsman named James Callender to dig up dirt on John Adams, while Abraham Lincoln had law partner William Herndon visit the Illinois State Library to collect “all the ammunition Mr. Lincoln saw fit to gather” for his race against Stephen Douglas.
Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was once an opposition researcher. So was Republican Rep. Tim Griffin of Arkansas. The Watergate break-in — in which Richard Nixon’s operatives broke into Democratic Party offices looking for potentially damaging information — was essentially opposition research gone wild.
During the current election cycle, both major parties are spending millions on research. The Republican National Committee reportedly has compiled a 1,000-plus page book on Mr. Obama; the GOP super PAC American Crossroads has more than 10 full-time staffers researching material just for attack ads; the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century has 25 researchers compiling books on Republican candidates and a team of 17 video “trackers” who follow GOP candidates in battleground states and record their every public move.
According to researchers, an opposition book for a local or statewide race can cost from $10,000 to $50,000.
“I make a good living, but it’s seasonal work, and the off years are lean,” Mr. Di Resta said. “And you’re not going to get rich doing this. My mother-in-law still doesn’t understand why I went to law school.”
Why do campaigns invest so much in opposition research? Simple. It works.
In 1988, Mr. Dukakis had a 17-point lead over Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush — that is, until Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater used opposition research to craft still-famous (or infamous, depending on your political persuasion) television ads featuring furloughed murder-rapist Willie Horton and Mr. Dukakis riding in a tank, spots that painted the Democrat as soft on crime and defense to devastating effect.
“You hear people say they don’t like negatives,” Mr. Di Resta said. “Well, I had a candidate I really liked, a good guy, and we found something on his opponent we thought was useful.
“His nonpolitical people convinced him to not go negative. Meanwhile, his opponent went negative on him in the last week and won by 1 percentage point. That was frustrating.”
The most important research, Mr. Di Resta said, is often defensive — candidates hire researchers to probe their own weaknesses, the rough equivalent of having a scout team mimic a rival’s playbook during football practice.
The process can be, uh, awkward.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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