Opposition research: Does it keep campaigns honest?
For years, opposition research has been to politics what plastic surgery is to the movie industry. Almost everyone has it done, but most of them are too embarrassed to admit it.
Consider what a client once said to Jason Stanford, head of the Austin-based Stanford Research, after Stanford provided opposition research for the client's congressional campaign. The candidate told Stanford that if the subject ever came up in the future, to deny that he'd worked for the campaign.
How did opposition research acquire such a stigma? By the strictest of definitions, opposition research is merely the practice of investigating an opposing candidate to make sure that the record matches the rhetoric. That sounds like something that should be welcomed in a democracy, but the practice is commonly dismissed as a tool of much-derided "negative campaigning," a form of "keyboard mudslinging."
Stanford - who primarily works for members of the Democratic party - attributes his profession's bad reputation to its roots as an underhanded refuge of slimy politicians. "My predecessors had nicknames like 'Doctor Dirt,'" he says. "They traded in rumors and they tried to be really sneaky about things. Ultimately, that doesn't work. If you're trading in the truth, do it openly, because there is no shame in trading in truth."
Stanford adds that political candidates are becoming noticeably less squeamish about their reliance on opposition research.
"It's very rare now for a campaign to try to hide the fact that they hired me," he says. "In fact, in 2004 there were five Republican campaigns that either issued press releases or had press conferences to attack my clients for hiring me, and they always backfired. Because no one could ever point to an inaccurate attack that I'd done. No one could point to any falsehood that I'd perpetrated."
The opposition-research industry tends to be dominated by a few major players, who get hired to assist campaigns in various parts of the country. For instance, Stanford Research has served clients in 33 states. While San Antonio has no significant opposition-research firms, that doesn't mean the practice is absent from this year's mayoral race.
In a sense, the mayoral candidates' approach to research speaks volumes about the kind of campaigns they're running. Poll frontrunner Julián Castro, with his emphasis on positivity and unity, has little use for opposition research. State Representative Joaquin Castro, the candidate's brother and campaign treasurer, defines opposition researchers as "reputation mercenaries." He also suggests that his brother has little need to research his opponents' records, even if he wanted to.
"With `Phil` Hardberger, he has no record, so when he talks, it's all speculative," Castro says. "With `Carroll` Schubert, Julián's been on the council with him for four years, so we know his record very well." In contrast, the aggressive Hardberger campaign doesn't hesitate to talk about the opposition research performed by campaign staffers, even if they shy away from the term.
"We do plenty of research on every aspect of the campaign," says Christian Archer, campaign manager for Hardberger. "'Opposition research' sounds very negative, but certainly when you get statements that are misleading, you have to get to the truth.
"The frustrating part for the average voter is that they want to hear positive statements from the candidates about what they're going to do for the city, and they don't want negativity. At the same time, it's important to draw distinctions, to compare what people are doing versus what they are saying."
Archer focuses much of his attack on what he describes as the gulf between Castro's avowed concerns about special interests and out-of-state developers in local politics and his record.
Stanford cites the ongoing deterioration of investigative journalism in the United States as a justification for opposition research.
"The lack of competition in big city dailies has made it easy for politicians to get by with whatever they feel like saying," he says. "As long as politicians lie, there is a need for opposition research because everything we do is based in documented fact."
He says he used to compete against unpaid interns, but now finds himself up against high-powered, consummate professionals. He describes opposition research as an exact science that swiftly weeds out the uncommitted or unprepared.
"The slightest misstep in an ad, lawyers will go to the station and get it off the air," he says. "We have to be very, very careful about the charges we make in these ads. They don't give you style points in opposition research. Ten, 20 years ago, people thought this was like James Bond. Now, it's all very Marian Librarian." •