Playing Dirty: The Cloak-and-Dagger World of Opposition Research

Many have speculated about the possible role of an opposing campaign in revelations about GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain's sexual harassment settlements while head of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s. Former Atlantic senior editor Josh Green's June 2004 feature story on the rise of opposition research, "Playing Dirty," dug into the history of the practice:

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.

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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.

Continue reading "Playing Dirty."