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US campaigns get early start on digging for dirt

A worker at Video Only watches the presidential debate on October 15, 2008 in San Francisco, California
A worker at Video Only watches the presidential debate on October 15, 2008 in San Francisco, California. No serious US political campaign is complete without digging deep into an opponent's past -- and the shovels are already out for the 2014 and 2016 pol

No serious US political campaign is complete without digging deep into an opponent's past -- and the shovels are already out for the 2014 and 2016 polls.

Nothing is out of bounds, and a poorly worded remark, routine legislative vote or change of opinion -- even from years or decades earlier -- can come back to haunt a candidate and even swing a race.

One infamous example: in the 2002 Montana Senate race, a clever Democratic researcher followed a rumor to uncover a decades-old video cassette showing the Republican candidate, Mike Taylor, in a commercial for his beauty products business -- a moment seen as too effeminate for a Senate contender.

In the clip, Taylor is primping and massaging lotion onto a mustached-man. The tape was immediately culled for a mocking ad by his Democratic opponent, and Taylor soon withdrew from the race.

The story illustrates the potentially devastating impact of a small moment, so in order to find the tiniest chink in their adversaries' armor, politicians hire special companies for what's called "opposition research."

An undated still image taken show an television ad released by the campaign of former candidate John McCain
An undated still image taken show an television ad released by the campaign of former candidate John McCain.

With campaign budgets skyrocketing -- sometimes to the tens of millions of dollars for a Senate candidate, and far higher for a presidential bid -- the use of these research firms has become a crucial strategic tool.

In the capital Washington more than a dozen companies ply this trade for the Democrats alone, according to Brett di Resta, who teaches a class on the subject at George Washington University.

-- Video Tracking --

Di Resta, himself a Democrat, argues that anything published in the past is worth bringing back to light.

"It's not about girlfriends, illegitimate children," he told AFP, insisting his fellow researchers are not stalking candidates or digging through their garbage.

But everything else is fair game, from how much they paid (or didn't) in taxes, to any past criminal infractions, to student essays and yearbook articles.

Alan Huffman, author of a book on opposition research called "We're with Nobody," said they look first for "anything, obviously, that is illegal.

"If you find someone who has misappropriated funds, or broken any law, that's the main thing that you look for.

"But beyond that, you're going to look for anything that indicates a difference between the candidate's public stance and their actual behavior," he said.

Digging through the past, Huffman says, is "a service to the voter" because it provides more information that can be used to make an informed decision.

Republican researcher Jeff Berkowitz, who has worked for the party's national committee, says opposition research is not just about uncovering facts, but using them to gain the maximum advantage.

"It's not just about what's there, it's about how you can pull the different threads together into a counter-narrative against" the other candidate, said Berkowitz, who tracked 2004 Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.

In 2012, the Obama camp used details from the past exploits of former executive Mitt Romney to paint him as a heartless businessman.

But the jackpot came in the form of an explosive video of the Republican presidential candidate describing 47 percent of Americans as freeloaders who enjoy government services while paying no income taxes.

The video was taken secretly on a cell phone by a waiter opposed to Romney -- not by a paid tracker -- but it is exactly the type of moment that opposition researchers are looking for.

More and more, the political parties are sending trackers to even the smallest campaign events, hoping to catch the candidate in an off-message moment.

For now, the Democrats have the edge.

It was "American Bridge," an independent leftwing group, that spotted and spread the video of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin talking about "legitimate rape" in an interview with local television -- remarks that ultimately doomed his 2012 campaign.

The group, according to CNN, had 60 employees tasked with following and filming Republican candidates.

To counter-attack, Romney's former campaign manager Matt Rhoades has just launched "America Rising," aimed at tracking the politicians tapped as possible favorites for the 2016 presidential poll.

The group wants to "make sure we're building out a warehouse of video and information about them now, so if they do run down the line, the Republican side will have a place to go that we can hold them accountable for their past record," said Tim Miller, a co-founder.

So when should New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, one of the possible contenders, expect to start seeing a cameraman on his tail?

"In the summertime, probably. We'll have to see," Miller said.

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