Understanding Political Research
By Danielle Savage, With Cory Done
Yearbooks. Facebook comments. Court documents.
Opposition research is rapidly becoming one of the most essential components of a campaign in today’s political climate. Everything is fair game in today’s information-hungry market. More than ever, it has become vital that candidates weed through their history, and then review their opponent’s in order to guide their campaign in the most effective way.
To learn more about research and how to use it, I sat down with Cory Done, a research expert and longtime political operative.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
Cory Done. I am the Research Director for Victory Enterprises. I head our research department and currently collect, analyze, and assemble reports for all our opposition research clients.
In the simplest terms, how would you define opposition research?
In terms of the process, opposition research involves discovering and documenting instances of personal, professional and political misconduct carried out by the research target.
This typically involves searches of public records (including property records, tax records, court documents, and police reports), voting records for incumbents, newspaper articles, social media and other online activity, among others.
The finished product should be a compilation of these results, giving campaigns a well-documented and well-sourced picture of their opponent, including their background, their politics, and their policy goals.
Do you think every candidate needs to order research?
I would say that every candidate who wants to stand out should order research. Unless you’re the only candidate in the field, opposition research helps draw clear definitions even between members of similar parties. In a primary, the average voter doesn’t know the difference between one candidate or another within their party, but effectively utilizing opposition research can help establish a preference.
In swing districts where races might be categorized as “toss-ups” or favoring the opposing party, opposition research is essential. In any race at any level, I believe voters deserve to know who is running to represent them. Every candidate/politician should anticipate their opponent having opposition research collected and used against them.
How can you tell what information is useful to a candidate?
While I do believe it’s important for an opposition researcher to know what may or may not be helpful/impactful in the effort to sway voters, I’m more concerned with being meticulous in my research to allow the campaign, its strategists, and its pollster to decide what is most useful.
It’s my job to be thorough, not to direct your messaging. That being said, the most useful information draws a direct contrast. If you support lowering taxes and they supporting raising them, for example.
Typically, the “crazier” the find, the less believable the hit. Voters find it difficult to believe outlandish, negative things. Unless the candidate is starting with higher negative name ID or the research is able to establish or confirm a trend of poor/concerning/unethical behavior, crazy hits can sometimes bite you back.
How should a candidate use their research once it’s been given to them?
Ideally, good research yields good polling, which empowers strong messaging development and execution. Typically (depending on budget and pragmatics), opposition should find its way into every element of a comprehensive campaign messaging strategy from mail to digital to TV and radio.
Other opposition uses: debate prep, donor outreach/messaging, press releases and distribution to local press, micro-websites highlighting opponent’s record. If applicable, opposition research is employed well when it is used to highlight inconsistencies between an opponent’s record and his/her rhetoric, or when it is used to undermine their campaign platform (ex. A pledge to stand up for working families contrasted with past votes to raise property taxes or increase utility rates).
Why do you think some candidates struggle to use their research effectively?
Candidates should always be prepared to build and present a case to voters explaining why they are the right candidate to represent their interests and the opponent is not. Opposition research is an important part of this process that shouldn’t be overlooked.
A common objection raised by candidates is “negative campaigning” doesn’t work or they want to “stick to the issues.” Opposition research does not prevent a campaign from “sticking to the issues” — it enables and empowers a campaign to do just that. It allows a campaign to clearly and explicitly distinguish their candidate from his/her opponent on the issues that matter to voters without relying on empty rhetoric or baseless accusations.
And again, if your opponent doesn’t pay their taxes but wants to determine how your tax dollars should be spent, don’t you think your constituents deserve to know that?
Any last thoughts about something you want to say but I didn’t ask?
Candidates should be mindful of, and honest about, their own past. If there are significant liabilities in your past, expect they will be brought to light in a campaign. If this is the case, consider not running for office, or be ready to deal with these issues in an open and honest manner. No one is perfect, and voters don’t necessarily demand it, but an attempt to cover up the truth or ignore the seriousness of a situation can lead to a disastrous and humiliating outcome for everyone on your team, in your home, and at campaign headquarters.
Victory Enterprises offers a full shop of research resources. We specialize in preparing you to meet your opponent head on with the most accurate, recent, and valuable information available. To learn more about our research department, delivery times, cost of product and more, contact us today.