“I’ll meet with the candidate, have them tell me their life story,” Mr. Di Resta said. “Then I start asking my questions: Have you ever been sued? You say you’ve never voted for a tax increase — why does my research say different?
“You have to know what the other side is going to hit your candidate on. It’s the Boy Scout motto. Be prepared.”
Failure to do so can be disastrous. During the 2009 Annapolis mayoral race, Democratic candidate Zina Pierre was forced to drop out less than two weeks after winning a primary after reports surfaced that she had owned a house that went into foreclosure and faced lawsuits over unpaid debts. Arkansas Democrat Ken Aden ended his Congressional campaign last week when he was caught lying about his military and educational records.
“That sinking feeling when someone else discovers something negative about your candidate that you didn’t know about?” Mr. Yedwab said. “Man, that’s terrible.”
Fair or foul?
Mr. Di Resta’s class was having a debate. Democratic trackers recently had begun shooting video of wealthy Republican candidates’ houses, then posting the footage online.
Was this ethical?
“It’s creepy,” said one student.
“If I can make one thing clear to you guys, this is something you never do as a tracker,” Mr. Di Resta said. “Never. Always identify who you are. Videotape public events. And that’s it.”
Researchers, Mr. Di Resta explained, have a code. The information they gather has to be true. It also has to be relevant.
He tells a story: A few years ago, he was investigating a Republican candidate, a well-to-do lawyer who lived in a mansion. Mr. Di Resta examined his property tax records.
By taking a dubious agricultural deduction on his property, the Republican was paying less in taxes than his Democratic opponent — even though the latter resided in a less valuable home.
“He had a couple of acres and had parceled off a little piece, trying to portray himself as a farmer,” Mr. Di Resta said. “He wasn’t. That is fair game. We took that information, shot a video of his house and said, ‘Hey, does this look like a farm to you?’
“Now, was that creepy? Or is that what a researcher does? A researcher is there to pick up facts.”