This year’s presidential election and many down-ballot contests are already proving to be some of the most contentious races in modern American history. Things will likely heat up even more with the first presidential debate tonight.
Like most debates, the success of the candidates will not just hinge on their knowledge of policy, but also on how much they know about their opponent’s positions, background and even personal history. By now, the candidates, their parties and other interest groups have already enlisted and given marching orders to their armies of opposition researchers, who have spent months looking into their opponent’s background from just about every angle imaginable. More sophisticated campaigns even take a deep dive into their own candidate’s background, which helps prepare for or even preempt possible attack.
Information gained from this type of work is not just used to help win a debate. Election battleground states bear the brunt of endless campaign ads, stump speeches and other election material, much of which is gleaned through opposition research. Although opposition research can help hold politicians accountable for their actions, it often is also used to spread partial-truth statements. That’s why it’s important to seek out the full story.
Opposition Research Basics
Generally speaking, opposition research, often referred to as “oppo research,” is an in-depth public records investigations into a political opponent’s background with the primary goal of discrediting her or him or an organization. Much of it mirrors the kinds of research folks like myself in the corporate investigations world do during our investigations, including conducting criminal records checks, researching civil litigation and property ownership, and verifying degrees and past employment.
In the political world, there is an additional focus on reviewing a politician’s public statements to see if he or she has “flip-flopped” on major issues. Oppo researchers will also attempt to identify any campaign donations that could potentially hurt the candidate’s public perception and chances of winning an election.
While I have not seen a definitive number, I have read many reports that say this is a multi-million dollar industry that continues to grow with the rise of super PACs. The value of this type of information appears to only be getting greater, as the recent hacker attacks on Democratic National Committee headquarters showed. A June 2016 Washington Post report stated that the hackers, who are suspected to be Russian, targeted the party’s opposition research files.
What Opposition Research Gets Right and Wrong
In many ways, opposition research is a great way to keep politicians more honest and transparent. Oppo research often shines a light on hypocrisy in politics or significant conflicts of interest. Some examples I have seen include politicians who oppose certain industries or government programs yet take campaign contributions from interest groups or participate in programs that favor those industries.
But there is a reason that opposition research is sometimes called the “dark side of politics.” These researchers often play the role of character assassins, using public records as their weapon of choice. Much of the information reported from this research is only half the story or a partial truth. One recent example involves a candidate who was portrayed in campaign commercials and yard signs as a dangerous criminal based on an actual arrest record. The full truth, however, was that the candidate, a high school dropout who was convicted of relatively minor criminal offenses in his youth, had turned his life around. Although he went on to earn multiple degrees from some of the country’s most prestigious universities, started his own business and received a full pardon from a governor, he lost that election, which was likely due, at least in part, to the oppo research done against him.
So, How Can You Know What Is Accurate?
Using opposition research in this way muddies the waters, making it hard for voters to learn the whole story. Newspapers and other media outlets often report on these types of discrepancies or half-truths, but it is hard for the news media to verify everything a candidate says, and most people don’t have the time to dive deeply into every issue.
When I want to learn about the truthfulness of a candidate, I prefer fact-checking sites such as Politifact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website that ranks politicians on how factual their statements are. Similar sites I go to include FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Check site.
The Hillard Heintze Approach to Telling the Whole Story
In our day-to-day work, we always encourage our clients to learn the whole story behind a person’s background. For the business deals our clients are looking to do and the relationships they want to build, it is not enough to just do a quick criminal and civil court records check. To know the full story, we need to dig into the documents from a case, talk to references and piece together a narrative about that person. Our experience has shown issues that may initially appear to be deal breakers can be better understood with more in-depth research. For example, you may be considering using a financial manager only to be turned off when learning that he or she has had a bankruptcy. But with a little more research you might discover he or she was paying for a sick spouse. Getting the “whole story” helps our clients make better decisions and separates our approach from those who are looking for a quick shot at an opponent.