Oppo software helps campaigns dig up the dirt.No one could challenge the candidate’s claim to being a fresh face in the political arena—until staffers for the opposing candidate plugged his name into a new program called Oppo-Scan.
The software discovered that the self-styled outsider had been appointed 15 years ago to a brief stint on a small-town council. And, he had voted to raise property taxes 20 percent, according to Jim McLaughlin, a consultant on the campaign that used the software.
“It was a powerful bullet,” McLaughlin says about the software.
Traditional digging—including Google searches—failed to unearth the same juicy nugget, notes McLaughlin, a partner with the polling firm McLaughlin Associates. He declined to give more details about the race, a 2007 contest for county freeholder in New Jersey. But the oppo did its trick: McLaughlin’s guy won.
While viral videos have hogged the spotlight when it comes to destroying candidates over the last two years, campaigns can’t count on video to bring down every foe. They still need to root through public records. New software like Oppo-Scan holds out the promise of digging deeper, faster.
These programs “might not be as sexy right now as a video that pops up on YouTube, but I think they can be just as effective,” says Brian Jones, the former research director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He’s now managing director of Mercury Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Oppo-Scan is one of two such programs created by Gallagher Hollenbeck, a Republican firm in Wood-Ridge, N.J., headed by opposition researcher Kevin Collins. Two years after initiating work on the programs, the firm is now pitching to Republicans for the 2008 cycle.
The first program, called Giles, scours state legislative records. Oppo-Scan takes names and searches for them in a wide range of databases, including criminal records, sex-offender lists and federal grant recipients. A donor search that might have taken three weeks in the past can be done in three days with Oppo-Scan, Collins says.
Giles costs between $500 and $1,000 per legislative session. Oppo-Scan costs $2 per name plus a $150 fee.
Democratic firms also have been honing research tools. One firm, Douglas Fulmer & Associates in Nashville, Tenn., creates customized computer disks that give any campaign a road map in searching for records. Drawing on information given by a campaign, the disk tells staffers what to look for and where to find it, whether on the Web or in a county courthouse. The disk even gives the hours the courthouse is open.
The goal is to simplify opposition research for non-experts and give more specific advice than generic how-to guides. “It’s one of those things that people just think you’ve got to have all this background or experience or understanding to even begin to approach it, and it scares people off the way maps scare some people,” Fulmer says.
Disks cost between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the size of the campaign and the amount of information. An outside consultant might charge $10,000 to $15,000, Fulmer says.
Of course, courthouses are no longer the only place to look. Online social networks represent a new playground for opposition researchers, and a potential trove of damaging comments and pictures.
The website Zumende.com, which is still in development, will let users find people on MySpace and Facebook and turn up other public and professional records linked to their names. There’s a mix of free and subscriber-only tools planned for the site, run by Intelius Inc., a company near Seattle that got its start doing online background checks.
Zumende will also furnish a list of possible relatives, because the last thing a candidate wants is for people to know how tight they are with ex-cons and other unsavories.
“It’s not just the person,” says Edward Peterson, an executive vice president at Intelius. “It’s also the company that person keeps.”
Your Eyes on the Tube
Several companies are angling to be your hired couch potato for the 2008 campaign season.
The companies monitor national and local television news and flag any mention of your candidate, your opponent or your issues, giving campaigns access to content either online or by e-mail.
Monthly fees range from $125 to $500 for the services, which work essentially like digital video recorders but spare users from having to buy any hardware or figure out how to schedule recordings.
At the upper end of the scale is TVEyes Inc., which delivers streaming video and e-mail alerts as news happens. The company, based in Fairfield, Conn., watches the 50 largest markets in the country and about 15 smaller ones, says chief executive officer David Ives.
TVEyes is adding markets based on customer need. When presidential campaigns subscribed to the service, for example, the company expanded coverage in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A rival, CyberAlert Inc., watches stations in the 100 largest markets and charges a fee of $225 per month. Clients receive written transcripts of relevant news programs with same-day or overnight delivery.
You’ll have to pay extra if you want the video. Individual clips cost $90 to $110, says Bill Comcowich, chief executive officer of CyberAlert, based in Stratford, Conn.
Political clients tend to be involved in statewide races for governor or U.S. Senate, Comcowich says. “Any smaller than that and they can usually monitor the media themselves using volunteers or interns.”
If you’re in a smaller race and really need someone to watch TV for you, you can turn to News Data Services, a cooperative of 45 local monitoring companies that together cover most markets in the United States. Monthly charges range from $125 to $495.
The price is based on factors such as geographic scope and whether a client wants only an e-mail alert or the full video, says Bryan Council, president of the cooperative.
News Data also has been developing programs that analyze the tone and audience of news broadcasts, says Council, who is also the client relations director for Metro Monitor in Birmingham, Ala.
Of course, campaigns can map the same things using their own spreadsheets.
“What we’re doing is giving them the tools to make all of that a lot easier,” Council says.
Digital Pics, Easier
Digital cameras let you snap hundreds of pictures with little effort. But when the shooting’s over, the work begins.
You have to dig out the USB cord, plug the camera into your computer, download photos and then upload them to your favorite online gallery. It’s enough to turn Ansel Adams into antsy Adams (sorry, couldn’t resist).
The new wireless SD card from Eye-Fi Inc. creates a nifty shortcut around all that.
The card, compatible with most digital cameras, carries two gigabytes of memory and a wireless transmitter that automatically sends photos to your computer and posts them to your favorite Web sites, like Facebook, Flickr and Shutterfly. Downloadable software manages the process.
The main drawback is that you have to wait until you get home—or near your laptop—to download photos. The card doesn’t communicate through Wi-Fi hotspots in hotels, airports and coffee shops.
Nonetheless, it’s one less cord to store and possibly lose on the campaign trail. Just make sure you delete the photos of the candidate nodding off at a town hall meeting before the Eye-Fi card gets in downloading range of your computer.