What you need to know about opposition research
Research is a critical part of any political campaign. Determining your weaknesses and your opponent’s weaknesses can make the difference in your election.
Recently, I sat down (virtually) with two of the best researchers in the business, Ben Jones of Jones Mandel and Sonia Van Meter of Stanford Campaigns.
This is a bit longer post than we usually do, but we think you’ll find it as fascinating as we did.
Sonia Van Meter is the Managing Partner of Stanford Campaigns. She moved to Austin in 2003 graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, but soon found she preferred activism to academia. She joined Stanford Campaigns in 2009, she has worked hundreds of campaigns and IEs all over the country.
Benjamin Jones is the CEO and co-founder of Jones Mandel. Based in Seattle, WA, he is a veteran strategist with 26 years of experience working with candidate campaigns, issue groups and a handful of like-minded corporations. Ben and his team at JM have helped elect six current U.S. Senators, six current Governors, numerous U.S. House Members and many local leaders.
What’s your biggest research coup?
Jones: On a Senate race, my research team figured out that our Republican opponent was a member of an exclusive golf club in Florida that did not admit Blacks or Jews. We followed a tip from one of our donors who caught wind of this possibility. We located the golf club name and sent a staffer to Florida to look for local property records including a deed and mortgage documents near the course to show his residency nearby. We set up the opponent by obtaining three key public records: 1) the mortgage deed of his house on the golf course; 2) the restrictive covenant that was part of the mortgage documents and 3) contact with someone at the club who took a photo of his name in the membership directory. We handed the hit off to an AP reporter to develop so the story would show up in papers all across the state. When confronted, the candidate denied being a member of the club. The he said he didn’t have many ties to the club, after being forced to admit he was a member. Then had to defend owning a house on the course which had a restrictive covenant that said the house could not be sold to Blacks. The entire episode was a four-day story that was laid out over time.
But other than a specific example to expose a vulnerability of a particular opponent, the biggest research coup I have been involved in over the last 15 years has been to help normalize the process of opposition and self-research into the bloodstream of campaign messaging operations. Research, done well and correctly, is part and parcel of a solid message operation. Including research at the message table from day one was not part of Democratic political consulting/campaign behavior 15 years ago. Now, candidates and national party committees expect serious candidates to have good self and opposition research on hand to prepare effective contrasts for voters. The notion that research is a given for campaigns today actually took a lot of effort across many firms, people, and functions inside Democratic campaigns. Today, it is not a question of if a researcher is hired, it is a question of when. And that is a positive development for all aspects of Democratic campaigns.
Van Meter: Research successes that destroy a candidate while they’re in the race get more news coverage, but to me, finding research so damning that just letting your candidate know you have it forces them to drop out is far more satisfying. It’s the political equivalent of slitting your opponent’s throat in their sleep. It’s quick, quiet, and cheaper than waging the war. We recently found a police record of an opponent getting drunk at someone’s home and hopping into the shower with a woman he didn’t know, very much against her will. Charges were brought, and he ended up pleading down to a lesser offense. It was years ago, and he was now running for office in a different state, assuming foolishly that researchers wouldn’t have the good sense to check for a criminal record near an address where he’d lived previously. Our client made sure his opponent knew we had the record in our possession. The opponent withdrew from the race about 12 hours later.
What makes a great hit?
Van Meter: SO many things, really, but there’s a difference between a hit that gets lots of clicks, and a hit that moves lots of voters. Stories that involve salacious details of sex, drugs, and other morally questionable behavior will always make headlines and garner attention. But to move voters, the offense has to indicate that the candidate will make those same bad choices when it comes to decisions that will affect their constituents. Turns out voters don’t especially care about cheating on your spouse or smoking pot in college as long as you don’t consistently lecture about the evils of sexuality or gateway drugs. But if there’s hypocrisy involved? If someone’s preaching one thing and practicing another? That’ll get you mileage whether it’s sleeping with your opponent’s wife, double dipping on a pension, or even just taking a double homestead exemption by accident. Intention is everything.
Jones: A great hit usually has local context and is timely in nature. Pivoting off an opponent’s announcement, issue paper, policy statement, or quote gives the hit more legs and relevance. Great hits usually need to relate to voters’ lives in a simple way that gives the hit some stickiness. An easy example would be, instead of saying a candidate supports teachers and public education, the research should point to specific outcomes of that policy belief and position. The positive hit – because hits can also be positives, let’s not forget – would be more along the lines of, “Candidate X supports our local teachers in our 38 schools and even passed a law to provide free and reduced meals to 45% more children so those kids can focus on learning during the day.” Negative hits need to remember their audience and what goal or value it is trying to convey. In other words, the existence of questionable behavior isn’t always enough to persuade the negatives need to be part of a creative narrative to make them stick. Research is a function of message creation that builds legitimacy and trust for a candidate. Narratives are a big part of that process. So, a great hit always keeps the end goal in mind: securing and moving voters.
How is your business changing now that people are bringing more research in house?
Jones: Honestly, our business hasn’t changed. I started my career as an in-house researcher on two Governor races, one Congressional and one Senate race. Our firm understands that there is always room for a consulting firm like ours to work with an in-house research team. In fact, we tell all of our statewide races and other types of clients that they will need us plus a 2-3 person research team (on some races many more). Today’s day to day research needs for any type of client are most likely best handled by the in-house researchers. While the longer, investigative work to write up a large report or dive into a complicated project are better suited for a consulting firm. That could be at a national party committee, interest group, candidate campaign etc. We are able to bring multiple years of collective experience to a project. Oftentimes, part of our agreements include finding, interviewing and training the great in-house staffers.
Van Meter: We’re busier and busier these days, even with folks deciding to do much of their research in house. I think it has to do with the fact that in politics, research is an arena that doesn’t forgive mistakes, and getting good at the job takes years of practice. So many of the top oppo shops in the country are the OGs of the industry, and it’s in part because after 2 decades of research, they’ve seen the evolution of how research gets done. They know where and how to look for everything, what kind of hurdles you can run into, and how to sidestep particular bureaucratic landmines. Experience really is the difference between good and great research.
What’s the most common thing you flag a piece of creative for?
Van Meter: Taking just a little too much liberty with an assertion. We’re always sliding qualifying words and phrases into ads to illustrate timelines, specify responsibility, and clarify affiliations. It’s almost never as simple as “She defended a child sexual assaulter in court.” More often, it’s “She worked for a law firm that represented the insurance company who paid the claim to a family whose child was abused by a former employer of a company.” …not as punchy as “She defended a child sexual assaulter” I’ll grant you, but it’s much, much closer to accurate.
Jones: Research has to work closely with creative to make sure we tell a compelling, but also accurate, story. When evaluating an ad, we have to be sure that the creative team isn’t trying to draw a conclusion that isn’t backed up in the research. We have to work with them to ensure that they tell the factual story. If we make a claim that’s exaggerated, the potential backlash could be immense. We could face a negative fact check, and the other side could accuse our candidate of lying, drowning out whatever message we were trying convey in our ad. Even worse, a false ad risks being taken down, a costly and embarrassing mistake that will drive a negative news cycle for days, if not longer.
What’s your advice for young prospective candidates about how to keep their noses clean, and what about your digital footprint?
Jones: Our advice is to hire a good research firm to guide the early process of self-research. Our self-research process is somewhat different from our opposition research process. With self-research, there is a lot of time and attention spent talking to the candidate’s advisors, and to the candidate themselves. Many early self-negatives can be discovered and dealt with before they can become public. If an ambitious, young prospective candidate could do one thing, it would be to really, really watch what they are doing on social media platforms. So many of the issues that are knocking people down a notch come off social media – especially younger candidates.
Social media is definitely a space where candidates, especially those entering the public sphere for the first time, can get themselves in trouble. Regardless of whether we’re doing self or opposition research, our first priority is to identify all of a candidate’s accounts, which can include campaign, official, and personal accounts. Sometimes they might have a campaign account, for instance, that is used to engage with the public, while maintaining a separate personal account where they are more candid and may even post problematic content.
In terms of flags, it can truly vary. We look for offensive commentary, bullying tendencies and feuds with other users, profane language, and explicit content. We also review their “liked” content, which can provide an insight into their values and beliefs. A candidate might not personally post much, but if they “like” a post from a discredited or biased news source, for instance, that can tell us a lot.
Van Meter: Keeping your house in order isn’t super difficult. If you would be embarrassed or ashamed to hear it read back to you by a court reporter, don’t put it in writing anywhere. Assume all your texts and emails and social media posts might one day show up in a deposition. But in reality, with Gen Z growing up just as much in the digital world as the real one, young people are already uniquely primed for life under a microscope. As long as your behavior represents your authentic self and values, you won’t have to defend anything you didn’t actually believe in.
A huge THANK YOU to Ben and Sonia. We appreciate your time and insight. At CN4, we know strong research is key to telling your story.