Say “opposition research” to someone and they’ll probably think of a few things – the “Steele Dossier,” or The New York Times’ “bombshell” investigation on Facebook’s hiring of Deniers Public Affairs, or perhaps Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s scandal involving a racist yearbook photo. Opposition research was called the “dark arts” by FiveThirtyEight, and it’s been asked if opposition research even matters in the age of Trump. And yet, even as opposition research makes more and more headlines in recent years, it’s largely misunderstood by the masses. So what exactly is opposition research?
To understand what opposition research really is, let history be your guide. According to Allen Nesbitt, founder of Nesbitt & Parrinello, “Opposition research is as old as politics. If you want to win, you will need to understand how and where you ought to play. And you should also know these things about your opponents as well.” According to FiveThirtyEight, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was “not unusual for the Senate to dig up dirt on opponents – sometimes with violent results.” Opposition research was even used during the dawn of the United States:
One case of early American oppo came during the 1800 presidential election between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom reportedly hired a ‘scandalmonger’ named James Callender, who had previously revealed a romantic tryst between Alexander Hamilton and a married woman, to research (and promote) an allegation that Adams for some reason wanted to go to war with France. Callender was subsequently jailed for sedition, and after Jefferson was elected, Callender sought a job as a postmaster. When he didn’t get the job, he publicly disclosed his arrangement with Jefferson, along with allegations that he’d dug up about Jefferson and his slave children.
If you look up “opposition research” in the dictionary, you’ll see that it’s a noun meaning, “Investigation into the dealings of political opponents, typically in order to discredit them publicly.” And while this is technically true, it lacks an emphasis on the fact that opposition research deals with publicly available records. Many people confuse oppo researchers with private investigators, conjuring images of us digging through people’s trash or following targets with cameras to catch them in unflattering situations. However, as Steven D’Amico, principal of D’Amico Strategy and Communications, explained,
All information gathered [in opposition research] must be lawfully obtained. Most opposition research manuals have instructions for not violating the law on the first few pages. You don’t break into opponents’ offices and take files or plant bugs, you don’t fake your opponents’ social security numbers to get their credit reports, and you certainly don’t sit in on meetings where a foreign attorney promises sensitive information obtained by a rival government.
In addition, Yahoo pointed out, “Research isn’t gossip, rumor or secret scoops from anonymous sources. Rather, it consists entirely of publicly available information.” Former researcher and current reporter Yashar Ali also explained on Twitter that oppo research consists of “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.”
The dictionary definition of opposition research also fails to mention that the field involves defensive research. As this story suggests, Donald Trump neglected self research, or defensive research, a cornerstone of our craft and something we recommend always and ahead of opposition research. Kevin Cirilli noted that it is “political tradition” to do defensive research. This promotes discussion and preparation for the political fights to come. It’s almost as much a team building exercise as anything.
At Nesbitt & Parrinello we consider “opposition research” to be the full and complete due diligence review of a subject and their opponents. This may be in service to a specific candidate, social impact organization, a PAC or a party. For us it includes review of as much of the public record as possible. In the defensive research situation, we may be engaged to review non-public records as well, with our client’s permission.
We provide a lot more than just opposition research here at Nesbitt. As previously mentioned, we believe defensive, or self, research is also integral to a campaign, PAC, party, or cause. As we eloquently put it on our home page, “Know thy self.”
Defensive research is important because it provides an objective profile of the subject in question. This profile helps better frame policy platforms, and communications strategies. A simple online search of defensive research returns results on marketing, and that’s exactly how you can think about it. Defensive research allows the subject to better market themselves to the public.
We provide other services that will help transform your campaign and guarantee success:
- Defensive Research
- Opposition Research
- Fact Checks
- Design and Recruit a Research Team Specific to Your Campaign
If you’re interested in getting to know more about our services, feel free to reach out to us!