Why should your campaign pay a professional to do opposition research?
Originally posted on CompleteCampaigns.com and written by Terry Cooper
This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.
There are many, many reasons. Some of the principal reasons relate to this basic fact: The function of opposition research is to help your campaign communicate how and why you’d be the best candidate the voters could choose to seize the opportunities and solve the problems that confront your jurisdiction.
When done wrong, opposition research can cause your campaign headaches, including fatal headaches. Done right, though, opposition research will be a major contributing factor in your victory.
An election is a choice.
While some voters are led around by the nose and many aren’t nearly as informed as we would like, most voters genuinely want to choose the candidate who will do the best job of seizing the opportunities and solving the problems that face that jurisdiction at that point in time.
The major function of a campaign is therefore to provide the voters with easily accessible, easy-to-understand data that shows its candidate’s superiority as opportunity-seizer and problem-solver.
Opposition research, done right, makes that case.
1. Good opposition research guides you to the issues the voters care about.
Unlike some of my competitors, I believe that the term “opposition research” includes issues research. I am constantly looking for issues the voters are deeply concerned about, whether or not the opponent, or my candidate, has a record on them. For example, if my client is running for Congress, I want the client’s pollster to ask what issues are important to their constituents. If the opponent is the incumbent congressman, I also want to ask every Republican state and local official from that district what issues they or their constituents or governing bodies have taken to the congressman that didn’t get resolved. And of course I scan the online editions of every local newspaper, newscast and blog in every client’s jurisdiction to learn what the salient issues are.
2. Good opposition research recognizes that some issues that have the greatest impact are, to people not directly affected, totally pedestrian.
Sometimes an issue that drives voters berserk isn’t front-page material like violent crime or job-loss statistics. Often the cutting issues are what I call “pothole issues”. Pothole issues include, obviously, the failure to close potholes. They also include the failure to put appropriate traffic signs or signals at dangerous intersections; failure to remove snow promptly; failure to deal with gridlock; and the like.
What links pothole issues is that they involve a failure to take commonsense action that would make people’s daily lives more convenient.
Never underestimate the power of pothole issues.
There are “reverse pothole issues” also, platform positions that offer new conveniences even when the status quo hasn’t yet produced a measurable outcry. I recall one congressional challenger whose defeat of the incumbent was aided substantially by his promise to put a district office in the district’s second city, and a local official whose re-election was guaranteed when he abolished the requirement that cars had to display decals proving the owner had paid the car tax on the vehicle.
Good opposition research accordingly asks, “How can I make people’s lives less inconvenient?”
3. Good opposition research, working in conjunction with the campaign’s polling firm, helps identify not just “the what” of an issue but “the why”.
Another item on which I differ with some of my competitors is that I don’t think I’ve found the Holy Grail when I’ve identified an issue about which the voters are passionate. I need to know precisely why they’re passionate about the issue so my candidate knows how to frame his/her message. There may be six reasons why people could legitimately favor or oppose a particular course of action. My campaign needs to know which one or ones actuate the voters in that jurisdiction.
4. Good opposition research unearths the compelling facts that make your campaign’s position irresistible.
Good opposition research looks for facts, statistics and the like that will make the strength of your position and/or the weakness of the opponent’s position memorable.
Why was the Willie Horton ad so powerful? Because it encapsulated the total folly of Michael Dukakis’ policy of allowing convicted violent felons to take weekend furloughs from prison in an unsuspecting community of likely victims. 1 Had the ad simply described the policy without going into the details of a spectacular failure of that policy, its effect would have been far less.
My goal in my opposition research is to find a way to make the strengths of my client and the weaknesses of my opponent as vivid in voters’ minds as the Willie Horton ad made the asininity of Dukakis’ furlough policy.
(At the time and forever since, Democrats and their allies in the liberal media criticized the Willie Horton ad as racist because Horton was black. However, the ad never identified Horton as black and never showed a picture of him and the person shown getting hauled back to prison in shackles in the ad was Caucasian.)
5. Good opposition research tries to protect your campaign from overstating the results of the research.
Every election cycle, numerous campaigns get forced off-track and off-message by allegations that their communications are unbalanced, distorted or even blatantly false. Many of those campaigns are forced to apologize or pull the offending radio or television ads.
Sometimes those situations are the fault of opposition researchers trying to make too much of what they’ve found. At other times, the problem is that the direct-mail firm or media consultant took liberties with the research to achieve a “better” result. Often the cause is an inadvertent error in the translation of the researcher’s idiom into the media consultant’s or direct-mail writer’s.
Whatever the cause of the glitch, the consequences can be profound. The opponent attacks. The press may agree with the opponent. The “offending” campaign is put on the defensive for, at a bare minimum, one day and more likely two, perhaps three or four days. Events that the campaign thought were going to be blockbusters are overshadowed by the accuracy controversy and lose their potency. Good friends of the candidate express their disappointment in him/her. In short, the wheels come off the campaign.
To guard against calamities like that, I strongly recommend that my clients have me critique each communication that uses my research before it goes out. I check those communications not only for technical accuracy but for fairness as well because I want my clients to be able to proceed with their campaign plans, not have their plans disrupted by charges of unfair campaigning.
6. Good opposition follows and reports on the opponent until the election results are finalized.
Some of my competitors research the opponent, submit their report — perhaps nine months before the election — and then walk away. If you want further work from them, you have to re-retain them.
The problem is that typically the campaign doesn’t know whether or not to re-retain them.
My operating premise is that, if my client’s opponent does stupid things — and I’ve never found one who didn’t –, then he’s not going to stop doing stupid things just because I’ve submitted my report. In fact, he may commit his dumbest mistakes after I’ve submitted my report.
So I recommend that my clients retain me to watch the opponent nonstop until the election results are final. (I used to say “until Election Day”; then there was Florida in 2000.)