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After the 2016 election, many Democrats hoped that their presidential candidates, whatever their other vulnerabilities, were safely immune to attacks on their character — because they would be running against Donald Trump. Against an opponent who boasted about indiscriminately grabbing and kissing women, the thinking went, who would care about the kind of monkey business that brought down Gary Hart in 1987? In the face of the New York Times monumental exposé of Trump’s shady tax maneuvers and the ongoing investigations into his business dealings, his campaign wouldn’t dare bring up the kind of minor-league financial nonscandal that plagued the Clintons for years under the rubric of “Whitewater.” The feared Republican opposition-research machine might as well go into another line of work.
But as the past week in political news has demonstrated, the practice known to Beltway insiders as “oppo” has not died out under Trump. Earlier this month, a fringe right-wing website posted a picture of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 med-school yearbook page showing one figure in a Ku Klux Klan costume and another in blackface; two days later, the same site published an accusation of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Virginia Democrats have been stuck in crisis mode ever since.
Yet the familiar contours of the current controversy — a scandal surfaces, denials follow, a firestorm ensues — obscure a larger reality about opposition research. It will still have a place in future campaigns. But its practice, applications and effects will be radically different in 2020, and every contest that follows.
First, a word about what oppo is and how it works. For one thing, actual political researchers don’t call it “oppo,” they call it “research.” Research isn’t gossip, rumor or secret scoops from anonymous sources. Rather, it consists entirely of publicly available information, as researcher-turned-reporter Yashar Ali recently explained on Twitter: “court records, voter registration records… voting record[s], transcripts of committee hearings, ethics records, every single news clip about them, every video they've ever appeared in … employment records, regulatory records … licensing records.”
Candidates hire researchers to compile two things: self-research packets (so they’re aware of their vulnerabilities and prepared for attacks) and research books on their rivals (so they know how and when to pounce). For the most part, campaigns use this material for their own purposes — debate prep, attack ads, etc. — but they will also strategically steer reporters toward revelations that, once aired, can help amplify a cohesive, negative story line about their opponents. In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama’s researchers discovered, via Federal Election Commission filings, that his Democratic primary rival John Edwards had been charging $400 haircuts to his campaign — then tipped off Politico’s Ben Smith, who confirmed and published the story. (It’s worth noting that not all, or even most, such scoops originate with opposition researchers; reporters routinely break damaging news about politicians without any assistance from their foes.)
According to people who conduct and weaponize such research for a living, Trump has had an effect on the business — just not the one some Democrats have hoped for.
That hope stems from a common misunderstanding. The reason scandalous information is considered scandalous is not solely because it defies societal standards; it’s also scandalous because it defies our expectations about the individual in question.
“The job of research is to look at how a candidate is known and then go directly at how he or she is known,” explains Joe Pounder, a longtime Republican researcher and strategist who worked for Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney and John McCain before co-founding America Rising, the GOP’s top research firm.
In Trump’s case, he’s always been known for exaggerated boasting, bigoted views, criminal associations and sexual infidelity. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s character-based attacks didn’t work in 2016; they had already been factored into his public persona. It’s also why pretty much no other politicians have been or will be able to inoculate themselves from oppo the way Trump has. They simply can’t afford to set expectations so low.
“I thought that Trump would minimize the value of at least certain types of oppo going forward, given the way the he was so unaffected by it,” says Tim Miller, who co-founded America Rising and went on to serve as Jeb Bush’s 2016 communications director. “But that’s hasn’t really happened. Trump is unique. One of his special powers is just his utter lack of shame.”
So how has Trump altered the oppo landscape? By inundating the body politic with constant presidential-level controversy and making it harder for lesser controversies to catch on, says Democrat Will Caskey, a Chicago-based researcher.
“Everyone thinks it's the end of oppo because Trump is a walking demon from hell and he doesn't pretend he isn’t,” Caskey explains. “But I think the Trump Effect is more about the large increase of white noise. When the garbage fire hose is spewing all over everyone, I see people here in Illinois start ignoring otherwise salient attacks on a candidate's record. They don't know how to distinguish one thing from the other. It's just too much to listen to.”
Miller agrees. “You saw this in 2018,” he says. “C-minus scandals and gaffes didn't have the same salience that they had before the Trump era. It was just tougher to get them to break through in a world of constant chaos.”
Trump isn’t the only reason for this; the relentlessness and pervasiveness of today’s media are also major factors. “You can get outrage, you can get clicks, you can get attention on something — but it's harder to keep it going,” explains Eddie Vale, former vice president of American Bridge, a top Democratic opposition research firm. “Back in the day, if you had some good oppo, you could give a story to one reporter, then it would break, then you'd wait a day or two and you'd add a little bit to it — you could slow-burn it for a while. But now it's much more likely that in the next 12 hours or 24 hours or 36 hours, something else insane is going to happen and everybody's going to move on.”
If Northam somehow survives his yearbook scandal, he will likely have the media’s ever-accelerating metabolism to thank. “Some politicians, to be successful, have a unique talent to create their own reality and to live in denial,” Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton, recently told Politico when asked about Northam’s refusal to resign. “My guess is that it’s a big dose of that, and ‘If I can hold on just another couple days, the way this news cycle works, everyone’s attention will be turned to something else.’”
All of which seems to suggest that research won’t matter as much going forward. But quite the contrary, insists Pounder.
“I actually think, now more than ever, that opposition research will play a bigger role in future elections and in the political dialogue,” he says.
Pounder’s own commercial interests aside, he may have a point. “Early and often” seems to be the latest trend. As Axios reported over the weekend, “Democratic campaigns are secretly shopping dirt on their primary rivals much earlier than usual” and America Rising has “already deployed cameras in early states to track Democratic candidates' appearances.”
“Because you're fighting for people’s attention, the old adage that you had to wait until the last 30 days of an election is just not true anymore,” says Pounder. “It takes a lot of repetition and a lot of examples behind that repetition to form a narrative. If you're going to call someone a John Kerry-esque flip flopper, for example, you're now going to need two or three times the amount of examples to convince people.”
The bigger our appetite for information becomes, the more information we need to be fed, even if not all of it sticks, as Northam seems to be hoping. Sure, the media may “move on” more rapidly than ever before. But that just means it needs something — preferably something novel and dramatic — to move on to. Pounder’s business is to provide just that.
At the same time, more raw material is migrating online every day. “I was research director for the RNC in 2012,” Pounder says. “And in the four years since 2008, more video of Barack Obama had become available from his earlier years. Things that we hadn't seen were suddenly online; news stations were putting it online. Then in 2018, America Rising was able to use research dating back 20 years to help knock off Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp and so forth. We were discovering new hits because more information is now available and we have more ways of reading that information.” (In McCaskill’s race, Pounder claims that America Rising was “able to capture” — on video — “at least seven instances of her getting onto her private plane, which in turn fueled nearly $20 million worth of TV ads.”)
One effect of this sort of digitization is to devalue the kind of material that any political junkie with a smartphone can now discover and disseminate, such as online C-Span videos. Yet there will always be work for someone who can track down obscure offline documents, such as humiliating old yearbooks. (In the days after Northam’s surfaced — not from an oppo shop, but rather from civilian who disagreed with the governor’s position on abortion — one theme on Twitter was that the campaign of his 2017 Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, must have been asleep at the switch not to have uncovered it at the time.) Likewise, digitization puts a premium on operatives who know how to weave a convincing narrative from these increasingly numerous and disparate data points.
In 2020 and beyond, the result of all these converging forces will likely be a new era of information warfare.
Increasing polarization and the proliferation of partisan media outlets means less emphasis on trying to persuade swing voters, and more on finding red meat to feed to the base.
In that situation, almost anything goes.
“Our politics is just negative partisanship all the way down these days,” says Miller. “So now the point of oppo is about riling up your own supporters as much as anything else. You’re not trying to convince anyone anymore. You're really just talking to fellow Republicans with qualms about Trump and reminding them how much they hate the other side.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are running the most diverse slate of presidential candidates in history — already the list includes a black woman (California Sen. Kamala Harris), a black man (New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker), a Latino man (former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro), a gay man (South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg), and several white women — and this diversity should shield much of the field from certain kinds of oppo. But other kinds of material — material that may play on voters’ prejudices — will inevitably surface in response.
“There's a good chance women candidates won’t be sexually harassing a**holes like some of the guys were,” predicts Vale. “And African-American and Latino candidates will likely have fewer incidents of racism in their past. But I think the flip side is that because of sexism and racism, they're also going to be held to higher and/or different standards. If an African-American or Latino candidate said something about structural racism or poverty — something that would've been fine if a white person said it — the other side is going to try to weaponize it against them.”
In fact, the drive toward diversity that has given rise to such a trailblazing field is already forcing Democrats, in a kind of reverse Trump Effect, to crack down harder on some of their own side’s missteps than ever before — a phenomenon that appears to have tripped up Northam. Former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is another example.
“Voters just care about more of these things on the Democratic side now,” says Vale. “They won’t let their candidates get away with it — and Republicans can and will use that against us.”
Finally, politicians on both sides are increasingly living their lives online, which means they’re constantly generating fodder for the other side’s research operations — whether with their old, unguarded tweets from the early days of Twitter or their intimate Instagram stories from last week. Both American Bridge and America Rising are archiving candidates’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-them social-media broadcasts; the latter’s war room can record at least 18 livestreams simultaneously.
“That’s just a vulnerability that everyone has,” says Pounder. “There's more data points for us to go after than ever before. I remember working for Arnold Schwarzenegger in ’06, we were dashing to the library, desperate to find audio or video of our opponent. Now, audio and video are being produced every day. The grandmother in the front row doesn't know it, but she's actually a tracker.”
More info, more media, more diversity and shifting standards that make it impossible to predict which attacks will draw blood, and how much. When asked what to expect in 2020, one Republican strategist familiar with the GOP’s plans called to mind the kind of battle that Russia waged on America during the 2016 election.
“There will be nothing standard about what we do,” the strategist said. “It will be coming from the left, it will be coming from the right, it will be coming from down the middle as we look to see what leverages we can play. It will be Operation Chaos.”
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