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Learning to love oppo researchers, whistle-blowers of democracy
GW professor guides course in the not-so-dark arts
Before Brett Di Resta can teach students at George Washington University what political opposition research is, he has to teach them what it isn’t.
Opposition research, he insists, is not the province of sneaky, shadowy political hit men.
Nor does it involve ill-gotten dossiers, crammed with attack-ad-ready smears and lies, exchanged in dimly lit parking garages.
It’s not even an exercise in remorseless, single-minded dirt digging — though the occasional (read: very occasional) candidate-felling, campaign-sinking silver bullet is always welcome.
“The first thing I tell these kids is that I don’t own a trench coat,” Mr. Di Resta said. “We don’t go dumpster diving. We go to courthouses. Read thousands of articles. Sift through everything.
“We’re not ninjas. The majority of researchers are basically nerds.”
A 41-year-old Democratic consultant who has worked on numerous campaigns and for Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Mr. Di Resta proudly counts himself among the dweebs.
Now an adjunct professor at GW’s graduate school of political management, he has taught for three consecutive summers an eight-week course titled “The Not-So-Dark Art of Campaign Research.”
One of the few academic offerings of its kind, the class teaches students how to find and spread information that can be used as political ammunition — such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” speech, or Mitt Romney’s offshore banking accounts. With a presidential campaign gone bitterly negative before the opponents have even tapped gloves and a new breed of super PACS freed from old contribution and spending limits set to pour millions of dollars into opposition research, it’s a skill set that has never been more relevant.
For Mr. Di Resta, the course also provides an opportunity to rehabilitate the image of his much-maligned profession — an occupation that gave us Willie Horton, Herman Cain’s sexual misadventures and Watergate, an occupation that ranks somewhere between parking enforcement officer and congressman in terms of public esteem.
To wit: In a recent NBC News segment, correspondent Willie Geist called opposition research a “dirty business” involving “money for mud”; afterwards, host Brian Williams lamented that the researchers interviewed for the piece had faces “absent emotion, expressionless, obviously absent empathy. You can’t have any and be in [their] line of work.”
“I saw that and was like, ‘Really?’” Mr. Di Resta said. “Most of the guys I know in this business are like me. We’re not doing it to stab people in the back. We think facts are important. I would think that Brian Williams also would think that facts are important.”
School of hard (political) knocks
On a recent evening in Mr. Di Resta’s class, three students stood at the front of a windowless conference room, earnestly tarring the political reputation of Republican Senate candidate Rick Berg of North Dakota.
(Mr. Berg’s opponent, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, was later vivisected by a separate group of eager students).
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.”
• A quote widely interpreted as Mr. Gore claiming credit for the exposure of the Love Canal toxic waste dump.
“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.
“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.”
Opposition research has changed in the Internet era. The job is harder and more consuming: More facts are available, but also more rumors, half-truths and outright balderdash.
Tactics have evolved, too. While past campaigns often leaked tidbits of damaging information to reporters in careful fashion — largely to sidestep accusations of playing dirty political tricks — the contemporary approach is more direct.
Last week, American Bridge 21st Century launched a preemptive strike, unveiling a website featuring its full books on possible Republican vice presidential nominees Marco Rubio, Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman, never mind that Mr. Romney has yet to make his choice.
One thing that hasn’t evolved, Mr. Yedwab said, is the negative perception of opposition researchers — a perception often exploited by the same politicians who hire and rely on them.
“There are still a lot of people who have a discomfort with the idea that campaigns don’t just tell you warm and fuzzy stories about what their candidate is going to do, but also stories about why their opponent isn’t a guy you would want to elect,” Mr. Yedwab said.
In his class, Mr. Di Resta repeatedly makes the same point: Despite their profession’s unsavory reputation, researchers are tasked with uncovering the truth. Uncomfortable or otherwise.
Because of opposition research, he said, flip-floppers are forced to explain themselves. Unknown candidates are more thoroughly vetted. And politics is made more honest. Relatively speaking.
“One of the toughest parts of my job is arguing with political consultants that, ‘Hey, you can’t say that on TV,’” Mr. Di Resta said. “I hate when things are blatantly wrong or misleading. And that’s not just when Republicans do it. Both sides.
“I don’t want the next generation of researchers to go out there and think they are superninjas. I want them to do it the right way. It might be slightly arrogant of me to think my way is the right way, but I think if we uphold standards, campaigns will be better.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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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