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Monday, July 17, 2006

Opposition Research

Rachel Stassen Burger has an excellent story about the practice of opposition research. The story was written as a response to the story about Matt Entenza hiring a PI to do opposition research on Mike Hatch.

Digging up foes' dirt is status quo in politics
Most candidates don't brag about it, but they do it
Pioneer Press

Opposition research: Few gird for political battle without it, but most don't openly talk about it.

Most candidates and parties spend considerable time delving into the records and backgrounds of political rivals. They do it in-house or hire outside organizations to compile opponents' public statements, voting records, court records or any other public details that could woo voters away from their adversaries.

The results show up in the media, campaign ads, mailings and debates — anywhere the campaigns can get their messages heard and seen by voters. ...

While Entenza's explanations drew headlines, the notion that a candidate engages in opposition research raises few eyebrows among political insiders.

"If somebody tells you they don't do opposition research, they're either lying or they're not doing their job," said Jess McIntosh, a research and communications director for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. "It's something that happens on both sides of the aisle. It's something that's been happening for years."

Michael Brodkorb, who worked in opposition research for the Minnesota Republican Party from March 2002 until June 2005, concurs.

"It's just a quiet function of a campaign," he said. "It's trying to find a way to responsibly define your opponent in a way that contrasts well with your message."

Brodkorb now runs Minnesota Democrats Exposed, an independent blog that first published information about Entenza's inquiries last year and uncovered this week that Gragert's work went beyond Entenza's original description of the information he requested.

"Opposition research is aboveboard," said Brodkorb, who is a part-time consultant to U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy's Senate campaign.

But that doesn't mean all campaigns want to be seen as doing opposition research.

"There are people who are really nervous about it," said Terry Cooper, a Virginia-based political researcher who has worked for Republican campaigns in 49 states, including Minnesota.

He did some work for former Sen. Rod Grams' unsuccessful bid for re-election.

Sometimes Cooper's clients are so fearful of the negative perception of opposition research that they pay him through third parties so his fees — about $20,000 to $30,000 for a congressional race — don't draw notice in publicly disclosed campaign-finance reports.

Not everyone is similarly cautious. According to a Center for Responsive Politics search performed for the Pioneer Press, so far this year federal campaigns have reported nearly $2 million in "research" expenditures, which may or may not all be opposition research and could include polling-related research. Campaigns have reported $84,607 in spending on "opposition research."

While Cooper accepts his clients' wariness as part of the business, he sees opposition research as part of what keeps voters informed about the nature of their election choices.

"Why do opposition research?" Cooper asked in a presentation about the practice. "Opposition research is voter information services!"

But for all the cheering, Cooper does say that appropriate opposition research has its limits. Digging through public documents — from voting records to parking tickets to civil matters — is all fine as long as the information gathered has to do with the candidate's "qualification for performance of the job in office," he said.

What falls within that limitation can be debatable. Does a candidate's philandering reflect on his or her qualifications? What about treatment for depression or alcoholism?

Depending on the nature of a campaign and the research, those can be offered up by thorough diggers.

But it is clearly not appropriate, Cooper said, for researchers to dig into information about opponents' children or family.

"Stay away from family members," he said.

That doesn't mean the behavior of family members doesn't work its way into the public sphere.

Political junkies remember Billy Carter's misadventures and how they were reflected on President Jimmy Carter. During the 2000 Senate race, the arrest of Morgan Grams, Rod Grams' son, made news a few months before Grams lost his re-election bid. And opposition researchers had little to do with Minnesotans learning four years ago about the Governor's Residence parties hosted by Tyrel Ventura, son of then-Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Those stories were spread by the news media — not opposition research.

Often a research effort begins by digging up information not about the opposition but about one's own candidate to prepare for what may come from the other side of the ballot, researchers and political operatives said.

It will then move on to compile information about everything in opponents' public records, from speeches to job performance to candidates' experience with the courts. Even housing and divorce records may be fair game. Sometimes the investigation will be surreptitious, but Cooper and others say being open about the investigations can also play to a campaign's advantage.

Often, sophisticated campaigns will conduct polls to see how the results of the research play with voters. The results will then go into a "research book" and be used throughout a campaign as needed.

"We do have a research book on Mike Hatch," said Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican campaign.

But Carey, who called on Entenza to release his research on Hatch and also to reveal any suspicions he might have about Hatch, refused to make public the Republican research on Hatch. He did not say whether the book includes polling.

"We are going to be releasing it as appropriate," he said. "We have to use it in a politically smart way."

For the most part, opposition research is, well, boring, Brodkorb said.

"You're sitting there looking through the votes ... newspaper clippings," he said. "It can be a very dry process."

I'll agree with the caveat to stay away from people's families.