This year's presidential campaign is already shaping up to be even more negative than the last. That's no accident. Our correspondent looks at the cloak-and-dagger world of opposition research—the updated version of "dirty tricks"
As voters turn their attention toward the coming presidential election, an abiding question from the previous one frustrates Democrats: How is it, they wonder, that Al Gore told small fibs and was branded a liar while George W. Bush told big ones and was elected President? Gore's many exaggerations may have been foolish—that he had somehow invented the Internet, that he grew up on a Tennessee farm, and so on. But surely, this line of thinking goes, they paled alongside Bush's audacious claim that he could cut taxes by $1.3 trillion, effortlessly privatize Social Security, and still balance the budget.
A large part of the answer can be found in a BBC documentary titled Digging the Dirt, which was filmed during the 2000 campaign and never aired in the United States. The film centers on a team of Republican opposition researchers —a species that has existed in politics for eons but had recently undergone an evolutionary leap. From deep within the Republican National Committee headquarters the BBC tracked the efforts of this team, whose job it was to discredit and destroy Al Gore.
Political campaigns always attempt to diminish their opponents, of course. What was remarkable about the 2000 effort was the degree to which the process advanced beyond what Barbara Comstock, who headed the RNC research team, calls "votes and quotes"—the standard campaign practice of leaving the job of scouting the target to very junior staff members, who tend to dig up little more than a rival's legislative record and public statements. Comstock's taking over the research team marked a significant change. She was a lawyer and a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill who had been one of Representative Dan Burton's top congressional investigators during the Clinton scandals that dominated the 1990s: Filegate, Travelgate, assorted campaign-finance imbroglios, and Whitewater. Rather than amass the usual bunch of college kids, Comstock put together a group of seasoned attorneys and former colleagues from the Burton Committee, including her deputy, Tim Griffin. "The team we had from 2000," she told me recently, to show the degree of ratcheted-up professionalism, "were veteran investigators from the Clinton years. We had a core group of people, and that core was attorneys."
Comstock combined a prosecutor's mentality with an investigator's ability to hunt through public records and other potentially incriminating documents. More important, she and her team understood how to use opposition research in the service of a larger goal: not simply to embarrass Gore with hard-to-explain votes or awkward statements but to craft over the course of the campaign a negative "storyline" about him that would eventually take hold in the public mind. "A campaign is a lot like a trial," Comstock explained. "You want people aggressively arguing their case."
Maligning an opponent, even with his own words and deeds, is a tricky business; voters take a dim view of "negative" politics, and are liable to punish the campaign carrying out the attacks rather than the intended target. Digging the Dirt provides a rare glimpse of how political operatives have learned to use the media to get around this problem, by creating a journalistic black market for damaging stories. During the first debate between Gore and Bush, in October of 2000, the BBC crew stationed itself inside the RNC's war room, filming researchers as they operated with the manic intensity of day traders, combing through every one of Gore's statements for possible misstatements or exaggerations. The researchers discovered two (Gore erroneously claimed never to have questioned Bush's experience, and to have accompanied a federal official to the site of a Texas disaster), and immediately Tim Griffin tipped off the Associated Press. Soon the filmmakers would catch the team exulting as the AP took the story.
Similar scenarios occurred countless times, on both sides, during the campaign. The operatives' sophisticated understanding of the media and their ability to manipulate the reporting of political news helps explain how Gore's public image shifted from that of stiff but competent technocrat at the outset of the campaign to that of serial exaggerator who would say anything to get elected. The steady stream of stories reinforcing this notion took its toll—a fact neatly documented by the filmmakers' shot of the New York Post after the debate: Gore beneath the headline "LIAR! LIAR!"
One film scene of the debate-night frenzy captures the prevalent attitude in national politics. As he directs the investigation of Gore's statements in real time, Griffin, standing next to a sign that reads ON MY COMMAND—UNLEASH HELL (ON AL), pauses for a moment to reflect on his role. "We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war," he says. "We make the bullets."
The Gore campaign also deployed researchers, directed by Chris Lehane, who made his name spinning for the White House during the Clinton scandals and who by reputation is the most feared and loathed Democrat in the "oppo" world. Under Lehane the campaign portrayed Bush as an amiable dunce—a charge supported by many of Bush's actions but one that backfired, by so diminishing expectations that Bush prospered in the debates that doomed Gore.
After Bush's victory Comstock moved on to the Justice Department, and Griffin turned his considerable skills to prosecuting federal drug and firearms cases. Not long ago the RNC brought Griffin back in anticipation of this year's election, and in an indication of just how closely research and communications are intertwined, took the unusual step of bestowing two titles on him: director of opposition research and deputy communications director. From the same room in which he brought down Al Gore, Griffin is leading his team against John Kerry.
The campaign against Gore illustrates how what Bill Clinton referred to as "the politics of personal destruction" has become institutionalized and grimly respectable. Clinton popularized the phrase during his impeachment, when public disgust over years of scandal and partisan warfare had peaked. To avoid backlash, campaigns have become much more careful about attacking their opponents. Shrewd politicians can exploit this anger and still engage in hardball tactics—as Bush did by pledging to be "a uniter, not a divider," even as colleagues unleashed hell on Gore.
A decade ago opposition research was largely the domain of college kids. Today it is a profession run by seasoned investigators, most of whom learned their craft on one side or another of the Clinton scandals (Comstock, Griffin, and David Bossie for the Republicans; Lehane, his partner Mark Fabiani, and Kerry's research director Mike Gehrke for the Democrats). The elite purveyors of "personal destruction"—whom Clinton both feared and employed—have become the leading lights in the low-lit world of opposition research. The prosecutorial tactics and general savagery honed during the Clinton years are the hallmarks of their work. Instead of at high-profile congressional hearings, these battles are conducted from the shadows and waged mostly through the media. As the 2000 election showed, Republicans are particularly adept combatants. Moreover, in John Kerry they have the advantage of an opponent who is largely undefined in the public's thinking. And as in 2000, the election will depend a great deal on how successful Republicans are at the dark art of opposition research.
"The Front-Runner's Fall" (May 2004)
The Dean implosion up close, from the vantage point of the candidate's pollster. By Paul Maslin
From the archives:
Interviews: "Inside the Dean Campaign" (April 8, 2004)
Howard Dean's political pollster talks about the campaign's extraordinary rise and crashing fall.
Democrats may not have been successful using research against Bush, but they have fared much better deploying it against each other. One prominent Democrat has already fallen victim this year—though the attack was orchestrated within his own party. By last fall Howard Dean had achieved the unlikely status of front-runner in the crowded race for the Democratic nomination. Yet for all his popularity, the public knew little about him. He had built a following almost overnight, mainly because of his strident opposition to the Iraq War and a visceral anger toward the Bush Administration that other candidates were thought to lack. By the time Gore endorsed him, on December 9, Dean's victory in the upcoming primaries seemed assured.
That same week Ben Holzer, the research director for General Wesley Clark's campaign, arrived with Lehane, who was then working for Clark, in Washington, D.C., for a series of visits to the major television networks, newspapers, and newsmagazines. They toted a three-ring binder that contributed as much as anything else to Dean's rapid demise. The Clark campaign had classified the stories in it as singles, doubles, triples, or home runs, based on the damage they were expected to inflict. Holzer and Lehane offered producers and reporters exclusives on many of these stories with the proviso that if they were not used quickly, they would be handed to a rival. In the hypercompetitive world of political journalism this pretty much guaranteed swift airing or publication.
Gore's surprise endorsement marked the Dean campaign's high point. Six days later, on December 15, Dean declared with typical candor that the capture of Saddam Hussein "has not made America safer"—a comment that stirred public doubts about his fitness for the presidency and also about his increasingly visible hotheadedness and frequent gaffes. Against this growing uncertainty the Clark campaign set off a barrage of stories portraying Dean as hypocritical, dishonest, and incompetent. According to interviews with reporters, producers, and campaign staffers, these are some of them. (Lehane and Holzer, citing promises of confidentiality to reporters and producers, would neither confirm nor deny that these stories originated with the campaign.)
With negative stories cropping up throughout the media, the aura of inevitability that had so recently distinguished his campaign gave way to a strong sense that Dean was unprepared for national office. "It was absolutely brutal," Jay Carson, a spokesman for Dean, told me recently. "We were fielding four or five bad stories a day, and there were other stories percolating that we were frantically trying to kill or keep a lid on. When you're defending yourself on five or six fronts at once, every day, it's extremely difficult to talk about what you want to be talking about."
The Clark campaign did not single-handedly destroy Dean; Saddam Hussein's capture, Dean's frequent outbursts, and a flurry of negative TV ads by Richard Gephardt's campaign all contributed. But the Clark campaign could certainly be charged with aiding and abetting Dean's collapse. Polls in late November put Dean solidly in first place, with 32 percent of Iowans supporting him. The battered candidate finished a distant third in the January 19 caucuses, garnering just 18 percent of the vote. The damage to Dean may have inadvertently sabotaged the Clark campaign. Its purpose in attacking Dean had been to diminish his stature in New Hampshire, where Clark, who did not compete in Iowa, was running a strong second. But Dean's implosion gave Kerry an unexpected and resounding victory that vaulted him into the lead in New Hampshire. Clark finished a disappointing third and soon dropped out of the race.
Attempting to define a political opponent as something less than presidential is a hallowed American tradition. Two centuries ago, in attacks that echo in Republican characterizations of John Kerry, Federalist opponents assailed Thomas Jefferson with what amounted to the charge that he—a free-thinking deist who sympathized with the French Revolution—was in fact a godless Francophile bent on destroying the institution of marriage. Andrew Jackson's marriage to a woman he wrongly believed to be divorced, Grover Cleveland's illegitimate child, and Teddy Roosevelt's alleged drunkenness were all pushed by opponents during nasty presidential campaigns.
After Watergate and Nixon's dirty tricks, carrying out surreptitious attacks, even those based on the truth, took on a measure of risk. During the 1987 race for the Democratic nomination Michael Dukakis's campaign manager, John Sasso, and his political director, Paul Tully, slipped to several media outlets a videotape that showed an opponent, Senator Joseph Biden, delivering a speech partially plagiarized from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. This prompted further scrutiny, and subsequent revelations of plagiarism and academic exaggeration drove Biden from the race. When it was learned that his campaign had supplied the damaging tape, Dukakis felt compelled to call a news conference and later fired his aides.
In the years since, standards governing the pursuit and dissemination of such material have steadily diminished. Today not only do campaigns commonly distribute videotapes and other damaging information about opponents but "trackers" with video cameras follow enemy candidates for the explicit purpose of capturing embarrassing moments. Had Sasso and Tully plied their trade a bit later, they would be high-priced consultants with guest slots on Crossfire.
Oppo lore includes legendary "hits" brought off both before and after the Biden scandal, and many more that are less well known because the agents remained covert. In 1984, for example, Michael Bayer, the RNC research director, was digging into the vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's past and obtained a list of properties owned by Ferraro and her husband. On a hunch Bayer, a former military intelligence officer, sent a photographer to take pictures of one warehouse loading area. He discovered that one tenant was a pornography distributor—a fact that soon made its way into The Washington Post. In the 1992 Senate race in California, Bob Mulholland, a state Democratic Party official, learned that the Republicans' morality-and-values candidate, Bruce Herschensohn, frequented a Sunset Boulevard strip club. Four days before what looked to be a close election, Mulholland confronted Herschensohn at a campaign event waving a poster-size photo of the club and its marquee: LIVE NUDE—GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS. Last July, Representative Darrell Issa, who launched the campaign to recall the California governor Gray Davis, was revealed in a front-page San Francisco Chronicle story to have been arrested twice in the early 1970s, for weapons charges and auto theft—a story that was the handiwork of Davis researchers. And although no one has yet proved it to be so, an article of faith among Republicans (and some Democrats) is that the revelation on the eve of the 2000 election that George W. Bush was once arrested for drunk driving was a particularly devious plant by the Gore campaign. "You can't Botox your record these days," Comstock says. "You can't hope anymore that no one will go in and look."
It is perhaps not surprising that oppo research is among the more reviled professions, its practitioners held in about the same regard as spammers and ivory smugglers. This breeds defensiveness and a tendency for researchers to invoke a variation of the NRA claim that guns don't kill people, people kill people. Lehane says, "One of the greatest misperceptions is that opposition research is going out and finding stuff that's not already in the public domain. But the reality is that most of the stuff that really ends up having an impact is stuff that's out there in the public record." Two years ago a Democratic researcher named Jason Stanford was moved to write an article in the trade journal Campaigns & Elections that was as notable for its impassioned defense of his vocation as for his candid admission that rather than admit to her son's line of work, his own mother tells people he's a used-car dealer.
The proliferation of cable television and talk radio, the advent of the twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle, and the growth of the Internet have all increased the demand for political news and pushed the boundary of what is acceptable. Both parties now disseminate daily e-mails with headings such as "Sen. John Kerry's Hypocrisy, Vol. 1, Issue 10" and "Bush White House: Home of the Whopper," which contain quotations, links, audio, and even video of what is often accurately judged to be damaging or compromising information. Contrary to the popular impression that campaigns traffic mainly in sleaze and rumor (though this occurs too), these e-mails are almost always scrupulously sourced from the public record. The goal is not to spread untruths but to have journalists repeat a selective—and often deeply misleading—version of the truth. "We become a conduit," Comstock says. "We do the legwork for the reporter. Obviously, in doing it we tell a story from the Republican side."
Campaigns have become highly sophisticated at using such material to maximum effect. "It's a lot like a trial," Comstock explains. "The candidate gives you what you have to work with. You're piecing things together that tell a larger story." Lehane agrees that the first step is choosing a negative storyline to push and laying the groundwork by talking it up to beat reporters and editors. "The second step," he says, "is to catalogue a variety of stories you have that support this. You begin by planting some smaller stories so that you build a foundation or basis for the larger story you're going to want to have hitting in the fall."
Especially in a presidential election "you have to plant a lot of the seeds in the spring and the summer so that you can capitalize on it," Lehane says. "If you have a big story that's going to hit in the middle of September, middle of October, what you really want to do is build several things that come off of the story so that it's not just a one-day hit. If the story runs on the front page of a major paper, you also want to set it up so that it hits some of the television morning shows, and from there you want to have surrogates [friendly talking heads] out the next day, so that you get a second hit. On the third day, ideally, you have some additional information you've been holding back that you can feed into it [to prompt] another round of stories. On the fourth or fifth day you try to hold your candidate back from saying anything, so that eventually, when he does say something about the issue, you get another round of stories. If you do it effectively, you can basically wipe out a guy's entire week—he'll spend the entire week responding to a story that showed up on a Monday." In the heat of the campaign season each week is critical. Not only can a well-orchestrated hit knock an opponent off stride, it can solidify an impression that the many voters just tuning in to the election will carry into the voting booth.
Implicit in this process is the news media's cooperation in carrying out the work of campaign operatives—usually without disclosing that fact to readers and viewers. If gathering opposition research is a science, disseminating it is very much an art. "Usually you can find stories that match up with the dynamics of different media outlets," Lehane explains. "If you have videotape, you take it to a television outlet. If it's a complicated financial story, you take it to The Wall Street Journal. Something on special interests you take to The New York Times. It's all part of the process."
"We believe in a twenty-four-seven news cycle," says Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager. "A typical presidential re-election campaign focuses on running good ads, turning out the vote, and the fact that the President is the President. We have a fourth tier: we need to earn media as well. We need to create events that convey a message to reinforce our paid message. That's a big part of what we're doing."
It would be tough to find a better illustration of opposition-research strategy than the carefully stage-managed controversy that ensued from an RNC ad during the 2000 campaign. Over the summer a retired machinist volunteering for the Gore campaign in Washington State saw the word "rats" flash across the screen in an ad attacking the Vice President's prescription-drug plan. Mark Fabiani, the Gore campaign's communications director, intrigued but not yet convinced of malfeasance, had colleagues in other television markets record and examine the ad. When they discovered that the "rats" frame appeared in all of them, the campaign offered an exclusive to the New York Times reporter Richard Berke. "We compiled all the legal documentation on subliminal advertising—how the FCC has declared it deceptive," Lehane told me. "We identified a couple of experts who would attest that the stuff was not appropriate. We packaged all this." His team brought Berke over to a studio to watch it. The Times was convinced, and prepared to publish the story on its front page. But the campaign thought the story's visual element could be exploited too. Lehane notified several television correspondents traveling with Gore that a major story was breaking, and assembled them in a hotel bar around midnight, just as the story from the next day's Times was posted on the Web. The correspondents determined in which order they would be allowed up to the room that was serving as a studio. "First we showed them the Times article, then we played the tape at three different speeds, then we gave them all the background information," Lehane says. "The TV networks went nuts."
The taped evidence provided a compelling visual for television. Bush, appearing the next day on Good Morning America, was bombarded with questions about the ad, and fueled further stories by repeatedly mispronouncing "subliminal." Lehane continued, "The next day we had surrogates out calling for its removal, calling on [the RNC] to fire their ad guy. The third day we had some Democratic senators call for an FCC investigation"—to clarify rules about subliminal advertising. "There was enough over the course of the week that they were knocked completely off message." It was a triumph of opposition research.
No single outlet is as valuable in merchandising campaign stories as the Associated Press. "If you want the biggest bang for the buck, you get it in the AP," an experienced Democratic operative says. "They have fifteen hundred plus subscribers, so you get them to run it, and it runs everywhere. It's also easier, because AP doesn't have the same space limitations as the other outlets. They're running thirty stories a day on politics. And if they break it, the thinking is that it must be important and worth covering."
Indeed, handling the Associated Press plays an ongoing role in plotting campaign strategies. Because candidates nowadays are expected to launch their bids with at least a pro forma pledge to run a clean campaign, and because "going negative" can quickly alienate voters, the AP has become a vital channel of attack. Offensives can be executed in two ways. The first is through the more or less straightforward leaking of information that will prompt a negative story. Jason Stanford says, "It's easy to move stuff into the news media, because conflict is always a better story." Strategists know which reporters are the easiest marks when it comes to placing stories. The second is the more complicated ricochet attack. "You try to give an item to the press," the Republican consultant John Brabender recently told me, "and if they write a story, there's the basis for your ad. You're trying to create a headline you can use in your ad."
Such paid advertisements can make a significant difference in many races. But presidential campaigns are covered so thoroughly that political ads have minimal impact—and what influence they do have appears to be waning. Brabender has written that it can take three times as many airings as it did just a few years ago for an ad to register with viewers: "Voters are so inundated through increased TV buys, an endless barrage of automated phone calls, mailbox clutter, and heavy usage of new mediums such as email that voters can't keep up with all the messages ... and don't particularly want to."
"Presidential campaigns are not won or lost on paid TV," says Josh Lahey, a Democratic strategist and researcher. "They're all about free media, so there's even more of a priority." The payoff for a successfully placed item is the effect of the story itself in influencing media coverage. This accounts for the intricate methods of story-laundering by which campaigns avoid the taint of open negativity while gaining legitimacy from a seemingly impartial media outlet.
This year one more factor is driving the search for new negative modes. Campaign-finance laws now require candidates to attach personal endorsements to their television ads. Like cheery pharmaceutical ads with rushed disclaimers at the end, political ads now include a soft-focus shot of the candidate solemnly intoning, for instance, "I'm John Kerry, and I approved this message." The disclaimer significantly raises the chances that a truly vicious attack will boomerang on the aggressor, and few campaigns will take that risk.
The legendary—and legendarily ruthless—Republican political consultant Lee Atwater hewed to the adage that a campaign should frame its opponent before the opponent can frame himself. Democrats are limited in what they can do to President Bush, who has been publicly scrutinized for years and about whom most people already hold a firm opinion. (And they will be without Lehane, who initially worked for Kerry but had a bitter falling out and quit over the campaign's lack of aggressiveness toward Dean.) As much as anything, this campaign will be a battle to determine how John Kerry is framed in the public mind: polls show that 40 percent of Americans have not yet developed an opinion of him. Will he be a tough moderate who can restore fiscal discipline and frayed U.S. foreign policy? Or will he be a soft-on-terrorism Massachusetts liberal in the mold of Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis? The research that will help settle that question—what Tim Griffin might call "bullets"—is already being conducted and passed around.
"It's a science to know where to look, what to look for, and how to look for it," David Bossie told me recently. Bossie, who was forced off the Burton Committee for being too aggressive, is now the president of the conservative organization Citizens United and an independent researcher, though no less committed to the cause. When I visited his Capitol Hill townhouse not long ago, he was surrounded by stacks of Kerry files, busily scrutinizing Kerry contributors' business dealings for a forthcoming book.
Kerry was clearly not Bossie's first choice of nominee. In his basement he proudly showed me dozens, perhaps hundreds, of boxes marked "HILLARY: WHITEWATER" or "HILLARY: TRAVELGATE." He called them the "Sierra Madre of Hillary oppo," regretfully adding that what could have been "ready to roll in twenty-four hours" will now have to wait until 2008.
Nevertheless, Bossie is applying the lessons he learned from the campaign-finance scandals of the 1990s to his research on Kerry—specifically, that financial investigations yield a valuable paper trail, hard documents being the gold standard of research. "People have to sign on the dotted line," he told me. "And you can find the person who signed the deed, the tax document, the financial instrument at the bank, and then go after them and say, 'Hey, what happened here?' It always comes back to haunt them."
Opposition research will be the key, and hidden, factor in the campaign. But it can burn campaigns that are too eager to deploy it. Gray Davis was such a hardened exponent, even against opponents in his own party, that when he desperately needed allies during the campaign to recall him, hardly any remained. Wesley Clark's campaign succeeded in its effort to hurt Dean, but its smear tactics hurt Clark as well, who found little favor with the press corps. And when the Republican case against Bill Clinton during his impeachment proved too heavy-handed for the public, it was not Clinton who paid the price—it was those who most recklessly pursued him. Whether Republicans fare better against Kerry will depend on how successful they are at influencing the media and public perceptions about him. Certainly there is more freedom to operate today than in 1988, when the Dukakis campaign released the Biden tape. The RNC recently broadcast a video on its Web site, not unlike that infamous tape, which sought to negatively juxtapose various issue statements by Kerry. Unlike the Biden tape, which was distributed surreptitiously, this one was accompanied by a boastful press release and narrated by the boxing promoter Don King.
The official storyline on Kerry has already begun to unfold—though not the one the Bush campaign originally put forward. After Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, the image of him the Republicans hoped to instill was, as one of them told The Washington Post in January, "Liberal, liberal, liberal." But over the next month or so Kerry seemed to float above criticism and to enjoy almost universally good press. The trouble was that the Republicans' original version of the man didn't mesh with the facts: Kerry supported welfare reform, NAFTA, and deficit reduction; his service in Vietnam, his friendship with Senator John McCain, and his fondness for duck hunting were hardly the stuff of liberal caricature. In the 2000 election, Barbara Comstock says, Gore was recast from stiff wonk to serial exaggerator because research showed it was a charge that would stick. "Al Gore kind of gave us the liar thing," she told me. "He had a problem with the truth, and that could be tied to bigger things and bigger issues."
So during the first week in March, President Bush himself instructed campaign officials to stop referring to Kerry as simply a "Massachusetts liberal." The new line is that Kerry is a flip-flopper with a downright reflexive habit of taking the most politically advantageous position. His nineteen-year voting record in the Senate has become fodder for the research files and daily opposition e-mails slipped to reporters.
The new mandate has a proven history. As The Boston Globe recently characterized this campaign, the idea is to portray Kerry as a "waffling Washington insider too aloof to connect with average Americans." If this has a familiar ring, perhaps that's because we've already heard it: the portrait Republican researchers are painting of John Kerry is the one they painted of Al Gore.