Practitioners are wondering how Ralph Northam was able to get elected governor of Virginia despite appearing in a racist photograph published in a 1984 medical school yearbook.
Given how competitive the Commonwealth’s gubernatorial race was two years ago, why didn’t opposition researchers find Northam’s yearbook that features photos of two men, one reportedly the Democrat, in blackface and a Klan robe earlier? (After stating that he was one of the men in the picture, Northam on Feb. 2 denied appearing in the photo in question, but admitted to using shoe polish on his face to appear as Michael Jackson for a dance competition.)
The answer may be simple: His Republican opponent didn’t pay for the research necessary to unearth this trove.
I’ve been an opposition researcher for 13 years, and I’ve heard this question a lot. Once a client even blamed me for not finding his arrest for beating a fellow student half to death in college. Of course, this ignored that first of all, I wasn’t the one who beat a kid half to death, and second, he didn’t even pay for me to research his own record.
Let’s back up and look at what opposition research does and why you need it. Opposition researchers don’t know everything about everyone. Think of how exhausting it would be to follow someone around until you knew every single part of their lives! No one has time for that.
Instead, opposition researchers have a pretty standard set of things we look at: news clips, campaign/personal finance disclosures, votes for legislators/budgets for executives, office and travel expenses, sometimes a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, courts/property/voting history, and some level of social media/general Google searching.
This isn’t a candidate’s entire record. It’s not even a candidate’s entire public record. And it doesn’t include yearbooks.
Opposition researchers never look at an entire record, because our job isn’t actually about finding things. It’s about how much you’re willing to pay to find things.
Imagine you’ve set out as an opposition research consultant. Right off the bat, you have to pay for Lexis-Nexis and other subscriptions, marketing, and travel expenses. Then account for billing losses when clients “lose” your invoice and checks get “lost in the mail.” It comes to at least $15,000 before you land your first client.
This is important because to make money opposition researchers need clients. After clients, the second most important thing we need is time.
The price most (Democratic) statewide campaigns will pay for an opposition research report comes to about $10,000-$12,000 (less for down-ballot statewides). At that rate, an opposition researcher can spend about five weeks per report. The more time we spend on one report, the less time we have for new clients and more money. Firms who hire staff don’t have it much better, and in some cases, they have it worse: they have to pay for staff regardless of whether their clients are paying their bills.
The reality is that it takes a lot more time than five weeks to look at more obscure records like yearbooks, student newspapers, multiple courthouses, and microfilm.
In case you think my clients would be shocked to see this: no, they love it. Most of my clients actually ask me to look at fewer things in exchange for a lower fee. And they may be right: just because I look at more things doesn’t mean I’ll find better attacks. Either way, as media budgets rise, research budgets fall, and as research budgets fall, total information gathered falls as well.
So if you’re a candidate looking to avoid becoming the next Ralph Northam, don’t ask what your opposition researcher has found. Ask yourself if you’ve paid your researcher enough to find everything you need.
Will Caskey is a Democratic opposition researcher.