Few professions in the campaign industry are as misunderstood as opposition research. Even some seasoned candidates still believe oppo guys or girls are willing to stalk the homes of their opponents with telephoto lenses, or rummage through trash cans once a week.
The reality is it’s much like an attorney preparing for a trial. But as the dark mythology around oppo persists, some campaigns make the mistake of forgoing research altogether. That’s a major blunder. Research is a vital part of successful campaign strategy.
Without the best information, campaigns can’t make educated decisions about what advertisements to put on TV and what storylines to push in the press. Moreover, setting a researcher against your own candidate for self-research helps prepare a defense against inevitable attacks.
To help your campaign get the best out of its research, here are some tips on how to hire the right oppo help:
A common mistake is prioritizing other hiring decisions before research. The most valuable resource in a campaign is time and the more of it your researcher has the more likely they are to find the perfect content for polls, TV ads, and refutations for attacks on your candidate. Remember, public records requests that expose complex scandals can take months (if not years) to process. You need to start early. Smart campaign managers know that after hiring a fundraising team, the research team should be next.
Ask consultants for details, and remember you get what you pay for.
An epidemic among research consultants is vagueness in their proposals. These proposals go something like this: “For $5,000 we’ll conduct comprehensive news searches, legislative analysis, and opposition donor vetting.”
In fact, that really means: “we’ll spend $5,000 worth of time conducting news searches, legislative analysis, and opposition donor vetting.”
Strong research firms will outline a specific plan and tell you exactly what you’re getting. What news searches, how many articles? What public records? What are the unknown challenges that might arise that will take more time and effort? Is the legislative work just copied and pasted from a legislative information system, or do they perform analysis as well?
Asking your potential vendors to spell it out in detail will help you understand where you will get the most bang for your buck. Often the cheapest option is not the most cost efficient option and all too often campaigns pay $5,000 for a printed Google search. Remember, if you want to ensure the best negatives on your TV ads, be prepared to spend for it – think of it as a production cost.
Look for the right attributes in an in-house researcher.
When hiring an opposition researcher, look for someone with a thirst for knowledge, strong political instincts, creativity, and strong writing skills. The importance of writing skills cannot be understated. The number of good investigations destroyed by an inability to present them is a common problem in the research community. You should require a writing test that focuses on how they present research.
When interviewing, ask questions that get at how their mind works. Examples include: Do they find themselves getting lost learning about arcane subject matter? When not concerned with politics, what do they like to read and learn about in spare time? What was their favorite class in college and why?
If they say some boring political science class, are they lying? Or even worse, are they boring? Ask for a time they discovered a creative way of obtaining a piece of information. Where will they look for help if they get stuck?
Get help for less experienced in-house teams.
Many researchers tend to burn out within a five to six years and move on to other things. If you are hiring a research director for a statewide race, chances are they are someone in their mid-20s with two-three cycles of experience.
These dedicated individuals have the energy and stamina to pull the all-nighters and get the job done. But they need mentorship and guidance from researchers who have stuck with the profession for longer. When I was research director for Ted Strickland in 2010, I produced some great hits, but if I had a researcher with 15-20 years-experience to call, brainstorm with, and help vet my work, it would have been much better. For a very affordable price you can help your less experienced researcher go the extra mile and get the most out of their effort.
Give them a seat at the senior team table.
Some research firms just write an investigative report, send it to the campaign, and walk away. The best ones insist on being part of the team, working with your pollsters and media firms to craft the message, and performing follow-up research as the race evolves. The best researchers have significant experience weaponizing their findings and getting it into the hands of the correct reports. It is to your benefit to include them in the key brainstorming and decision making processes. Likewise any in-house research director should be involved in the same discussions as your other senior staff.
Finally, try not to make the common mistake of having your research director report to your communications director. That rarely works. The best campaigns are ones where communications and research play off of one another on equal footing. You just need the right personnel to make it work.
Steven D’Amico is the founder of D’Amico Strategy & Communications, an opposition and strategic communications firm offering services to both the campaign and private sectors. He most recently served as research director and senior advisor at American Bridge 21st Century, overseeing their department of thirty researchers.