It’s easy to think of opposition research as a thrilling, underhanded pursuit. But researchers are at pains to avoid that reputation. These are guys that spend their time in libraries and county offices, says Mike Rice. No dumpster diving here.

 

Rice, the president of VR Research, appeared on a panel today with Jason Stanford, president of Stanford Campaigns, at the Art of Political Campaigning conference, sponsored by Campaigns & Elections’ Politics magazine.

 

“The worst part of being an opposition researcher is the candidate,” said Stanford. Candidates often implore him to look into every odd rumor—even alleged murders—after being assured by some acquaintance that it must be true. But that's beyond the scope of a responsible oppo researcher.

 

Both recommend that candidates avoid hiring a private eye, a move that is easily spun by the media or an opposing candidate. A legitimate researcher will spend his or her time probing more prosaic records: voting records and sponsorships, financial records and court reports—all information that’s on the public record.

 

Once that information is dug up, Stanford says, there are three magical factors you have to include in your messaging: relevance, tone and accuracy. In 1998 Republicans suffered because of the tone of their attacks on Bill Clinton’s infidelity, which the public didn’t really care about—which demonstrates why it's important your opposition research goes hand-in-hand with polling. You need to find out what issue really matters.

 

“It’s never what you think it is,” Stanford said.

 

When seeking out a researcher, Stanford said, campaigns and candidates should start early; good research will improve everything else you do. But you should still choose carefully: get bids from prospective firms, check their references and always ask if you can get a better deal.

 

And, above all, avoid the temptation to have your researcher break laws, commit fraud or do anything that looks underhanded. Don’t even lie about the fact that you’re doing research. Because it’s an important part of any election, Rice says: “The hallmark of a free society is the free flow and access to information.”