The 2010 cycle was host to a number of classic opposition research hits. Just ask Richard Blumenthal and Mark Kirk, both caught exaggerating their military records, or Meg Whitman, found to have employed an illegal immigrant as a maid for almost a decade. It also saw more opportunities than ever to get research out, via various online conduits, and increased recording of candidates by trackers hoping to capture the next “Macaca” moment.
But is there a risk that more and more oppo material will yield diminishing returns? And can research even make a difference in a wave election? To find out, we organized a shop talk discussion among four veteran opposition researchers over lunch. An edited transcript of the conversation, which was moderated by C&E Managing Editor Daniel Weiss, follows.
Mike Gehrke Gary Maloney Tracy Sefl Mary Anne Carter
Mike Gehrke is a senior project director at the Benenson Strategy Group. He has been the research director for the DNC, the DSCC, and John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
Gary Maloney, who heads Jackson-Alvarez Group, has worked for nine Republican presidential campaigns, along with many other clients.
Tracy Sefl is a Democratic strategist who served most recently as a principal at Navigators Global. She has also worked for The Glover Park Group, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the DNC.
Mary Anne Carter is a research director for Republican campaigns of all levels across the country. She currently works for Florida Governor Rick Scott.
C&E: What was the role of opposition research in the 2010 cycle? How did it differ from earlier cycles?
Mike Gehrke: I was surprised at how much very good stuff that was put out there by both sides was either completely unnoticed or didn’t make a difference. I can think of half a dozen campaigns where they were very excited about the opposition research they had and found that once it was put in play, it didn’t make much of a difference at all in the race.
Gary Maloney: Do you think that it was different in house versus Senate races, since the house races seemed to be more on the order of a wave?
Gehrke: All the exceptions I can think of were definitely Senate races. Well, there were a couple of house races. But, certainly, Harry Reid’s race was one where it mattered a lot to his win.
Tracy Sefl: I think in this cycle, the bar was simultaneously raised and lowered when it came to using opposition research. It was raised in that your information had to be quite literally incredible. And the bar was lowered in that things could be used differently than ever before. They could be used through different channels than ever before. But I think Mike’s right. A lot of things didn’t ultimately matter.
Mary Anne Carter: I think there were two things that really stand out in my mind. One is the amount of candidate research, and when I say that I mean our candidates asking to have analysis done on them first so they could anticipate the hits that were going to come.
Because now there is Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and all the other venues out there. Typically stuff that you would only see in paid advertising can now make its way out there. Before you would be like, “Well, here are my two or three biggest vulnerabilities.” now you better have your twenty or twenty-five biggest vulnerabilities covered because there is going to be a vehicle for it. The second thing is unless you were going to have something that rises to great prominence, if you really want a message to get out there you really have to have the money to get the penetration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made effective use of controversial statements by his opponent, Sharron Angle,
as in this ad, “What’s Next?”
Maloney: But even then you have somebody like McMahon in Connecticut. Early on they had what I think in most elections would have been a lethal hit against Blumenthal, and she had the money to make it stick. They had the information on him falsifying his military records, just had it down cold, and it didn’t make a difference. Blumenthal ended up winning handily. That was a case where you had the money to make it stick, and it just didn’t matter. Was that because of Connecticut?
Carter: Well, I think a couple things. One, I think that was played out way too early. And two, I think the McMahon team handled it incorrectly by taking credit for it.
Sefl: When I look back on the Blumenthal story, I think more about that than the story. The very idea of publicly claiming credit for it. Everybody knows that behind closed doors you can high five and take credit and feel gratified that your days or weeks and in some cases months of work paid off. But you don’t do it publicly, and you don’t do it through the press. However, I could also see how it would be a very smart gamble to take credit for a hit and have that pay off. This wasn’t that hit.
Maloney: Well, it paid off in the short term, but it was so early it ended up just being part of the background noise, and perhaps the McMahon campaign wasn’t the best vehicle to deliver that blow.
Gehrke: The victory lap was a little unseemly, but they didn’t have a second act either.
Republican Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon used footage of her opponent,
Richard Blumenthal, misrepresenting his military service in this ad, “What Else?”
Maloney: That’s it. What about the hit against Whitman? I mean, that was an even better-funded campaign and, one could argue, a better-run campaign. She was close the whole way and she never recovered from that.
Sefl: The senior people on the Whitman campaign like to point out that the story was actually an oppo-product of the nurses union and that it was orchestrated brilliantly. I don’t think anyone on the Whitman team knows how the union came into that information, but they do know it was that union that orchestrated it. The comparative story between Governor Brown and Meg Whitman has been so focused on the funding disparities and whatnot. But I think a lot of the Whitman people will tell you that Jerry Brown benefited from all of that outside support and to have that devastating hit come from the union was further proof of that.
Maloney: So is there a lesson there that you should parcel out some of your most lethal hits for third parties?
Sefl: Well, I think to be clear it’s not necessarily true that the Brown campaign parceled that out. But the question is a good one, and I think it would be a very contextual decision based on where you were running.
Gehrke: Maybe one of the lessons, too, is that if you’re a third-party group looking to have an impact on a race, this is a new way to do it rather than just dumping your points on the air.
C&E: To get back to the Blumenthal example for a second, it’s interesting that Mark Kirk also ran into problems with his representation of his military service, and he also didn’t end up losing. Is this just a case of two instances with very flawed opponents—McMahon and Giannoulias? Or was misrepresentation of military service not what resonated with the voters this cycle?
Carter: I think a lot of that still depends on where you live. My guess is that there are not a huge number of military living in Connecticut, so while it was a huge issue to a lot of people, and it certainly made national news, within that state it probably didn’t affect the population that it really would have influenced because they don’t have the population there. But certainly I think an issue like that down south, played well, played later, could have had a huge impact on the outcome of the race.
Maloney: Now, Mary Anne, you worked for Rick Scott. And, I know from personal experience that you had as much thrown at you as at any candidate in the country.
Carter: That is correct—it was a very easy campaign. (laughter)
This may have been the closest the 2010 cycle came to a “Macaca” moment. Seven-term Congressman Bob Etheridge (D-NC) roughed up a pair of conservative activists who asked him if he supported President Obama’s agenda. Etheridge went on to narrowly lose his bid for re-election.
Maloney: What was most effective at parrying research attacks that you found?
Carter: Well, I will tell you in this race, more so than many races I have been involved with, I felt it was daily hand-to-hand combat. In both the primary and the general, the opposition was well funded and had done research well. We luckily had also done the same thing, so we were able to fight fire with fire. We were lucky in the primary because our opponent had a long congressional record, and times had changed since he was a member. Here we were ten years after he left Congress, and votes that had been made back then that might have seemed OK really stood out ten years later. We just had a wealth of information that we could go back to and look at.
C&E: Gary, I know you have some ideas about how the use of research differed along partisan lines in this cycle. Could you talk a bit about that and see what the others think about it?
Maloney: I think there was more Democratic research that drew blood this year than on the Republican side. I also think that part of that was that [the Democrats] needed it more, because the wave was against them. I think there was an emphasis on that especially in Senate races, and that there seemed to have been a different approach in the Senate campaigns than the house campaigns. Both of them used research heavily and often very effectively, but I really think that research helped save the Senate for the Democrats. In the case of Harry Reid, he was aided by bloodletting on the Republican side. You certainly saw in Nevada, in Delaware, and in Alaska, that attacks on somebody’s record or in the case of sue Lowden on things that she had said became major factors—deciding factors—in the primaries. Would you say folks that the strongest stuff by Reid was basically Angle’s record?
Gehrke: Yeah, a lot of record, a lot of video, and a lot of response to how she responded and making the most of what they could there. It was a really nimble campaign for its size, I thought. They did a very good job researching, but also were among the smarter ones in how to deploy it and use it, too.
Sefl: And they knew that their opponent would respond.
Maloney: Do you think the Democrats won the research war this year?
Gehrke: That would be a hollow prize I guess when it comes to that or the House of Representatives.
Sefl: I don’t know that anyone ever wins a research war.
Gehrke: I do know there has been a much more concentrated investment in trying to put together a strong research presence on the Senate side in the past four to six years.
Carter: I think the Democrats can point to some of their victories, especially in the Senate, and attribute a lot of those victories to research. Depending on the opponent, they were either allowed to make them look hypocritical or allowed to redefine them. On the Republican side, the wave was so strong that there was great research out there, but it was almost as if it wasn’t needed nearly as much. Especially if you were running against an incumbent house member, then [the Republican challenger’s] campaign research had been done for them the year before: the votes and a lot of association with the president.
Gehrke: Yeah, if you’re a Republican campaign manager and you’re looking at several possible ads to put on the air and you’ve got a research-based hit or you’ve got Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama on healthcare, I gotta think the numbers pretty much guided your decision on that this cycle.
Maloney: Were trackers more aggressive this year? From my understanding, in some cases they were. Or was there just more of it?
Carter: We actually did see quite a bit of it down here in Florida, not so much in some of the other states across the nation that I was involved with. But everyone’s a tracker now. Basically anyone with a cell phone is a tracker, and reporters are now all carrying either their cell phones with a video camera or the flip cameras. So every candidate now has to be on twenty-four-seven, and nothing is off the record anymore. So I think candidates always have to be prepared because they are always either on camera or mic’d.
Sefl: I think that is an excellent point, Mary Anne, about the press becoming trackers. In the endless quest for the nano news cycle, to have real-time tweets from an event or whatever it may be, that has enormous implications for both sides of any campaign.
Gehrke: There was a lot of tracking footage in ads this time, too. You know, that grainy footage that a media consultant would never use before because it’s not pretty.
Carter: I’m curious what my colleagues on the other side think about what is going to happen over the next year or two in terms of this president’s agenda and whether Democrat members are going to be as in line with that agenda as they were in the previous two years. We were talking about the wave and how for Republicans the research was already done in a way. I’m curious if you guys think strategically Congress and the administration might try to change their ways to basically not give free opposition research packages to Republicans again.
Maloney: Well, Reid was able to block Senate votes on many things last time, filling the amendment tree, et cetera, et cetera. And from a legislative research point of view, you always want votes. “Give us some votes,” was often what researchers would say to the legislative people. “Give us amendments. Give us recommittal motions in the house. Give us something so that we have the other side on record.” this was something that Pelosi blocked by having the stranglehold on rules so there ended up being almost no amendments on major bills. It was recommittal motions and that was it. Closed rules all the way.
Gehrke: I’m not sure how it’s going to play out this year in that regard. I do remember in 1996 there was a wealth of stuff to work with because the Republicans came in in 1994 to reform the process and said, “We’re going to allow votes on everything.” and it’s like, “OK. Thank you, speaker Gingrich.” in 1996 by the end of the cycle I could rattle off the date, the cite, the vote number, practically the page from the Congressional Record where that vote was because we used twenty votes over and over and over again.
C&E: In the 2010 cycle, did a lot of the first-time candidates, particularly on the Republican side, present especially rich targets for research? And did using research against those first-time candidates who were presenting themselves as non-career politicians pose any special opportunities or challenges?
Maloney: In Republican primaries this year, dealing with first-time candidates became a real challenge. My experience with first-time candidates or unknown candidates is that smaller things become magnified because you have a vacuum of information, and the vacuum sucks and it’ll suck whatever little loose bits are out there. So you have these tea party candidates, some of them well meaning, some of them completely irresponsible, and if you are going to do research on them, you are talking about starting at square zero, because they do not have any sort of normal background for somebody running for office. And so that means that things that would not register in a normal situation are in fact all you have to work with. So you have a tax lien, or you have a lawsuit, or you have traffic tickets, or you have property that they own and there has been stuff dumped on it. Just minor, tiny things, but if that’s all there is to work with, then that’s what you end up working with.
Gehrke: Heck, most of that just made them more authentic.
Maloney: Oh no, they were authentic, and some of them did quite well, but it was as if qualifications were a hindrance in many of these races.
Carter: One issue that really hasn’t been discussed in the 2010 races yet is the relevance of the mainstream media. Some candidates ignored the mainstream media for the most part or maybe held a press conference or two. They went around to a lot of the other media outlets and did TV, but they in essence ignored the press and bypassed it.
C&E: From a research perspective is that now becoming the preferred route, to get stuff out through blogs or outfits that are friendly to your candidate rather than going through the New York Times or whatever the big mainstream organization in your area is?
Sefl: I would answer that by saying the qualifications for campaign staff can no longer be so cookie cutter and to truly be effective in doing all of those things, in rechanneling the way you get your information out, you have to have staff that is creative and not doing things by rote.
Maloney: Are you saying that you don’t just hire former print reporters automatically? In other words, you’re looking for a different type of talent. Or are you looking for people who will do different things and won’t just hang out with the same old five reporters?
Gehrke: Yeah, you can’t ignore the five reporters, but you’ve got to have people who are going to be open to doing other things. The person you want around the table is someone who weighs the idea and tries to figure out how it fits and how to make it happen, and you can’t afford to say no to many ideas these days. You have to do the basics and do them well, but there are just so many more variables, you can’t just cross things off the list.
Maloney: When you say basics what do you mean?
Gehrke: For researchers, it’s the votes, quotes, and anecdotes. You’ve gotta know how your guys voted, how your opponents voted. Some sense of what they’ve said in the past and all the stuff that goes into the foundations of what the campaign’s going to be about. That stuff hasn’t changed much.
Maloney: Would you say that more of our research can now get out—so if we have twenty-five hits on our opponent, print will only carry five or ten. Those other fifteen would you say can now be used because there are more outlets? That the sheer volume that’s out there in the blogosphere and cable news and Politico, TPM, Slate, those outlets allow for a higher percentage of your research to get out? It would seem that that would be so.
Gehrke: I think I agree with that. You have to then ask to what effect. I mean, there is more of a need to flood the zone and keep the TPMs and Politicos of the world busy and working hard and focused on your race as opposed to focused on your opponent or someone else’s race. But I don’t think many voters see very much of that.
Sefl: Right, that’s the grand irony—many voters don’t see it, and all of your time could be consumed doing it.
C&E: What do you see in terms of research going forward toward the 2012 campaign?
Sefl: There is a small part of me that hopes that we would see less is more, that this hyper-nano-saturation cycle might actually have peaked. Maybe that’s just my own exhaustion speaking, but there is something sort of retro and appealing about a very nuts-and-bolts, smart, always nimble, always contemporary, but perhaps less is more. I fully expect to be wrong, but it is nonetheless my wish.
Maloney: Well, this is a presidential cycle, so we’ve got that overlaying all the other things. The presidential is one thing; all of the other races are another. I would expect more early tracking, which is when people make more goofs, when they are still really novices and, also, you’re more likely to make mistakes in front of friendly groups. All the attention presidential-wise will be pretty much on the Republicans and how do they differentiate themselves from Obama, because incumbents are the issue. I mean, Harry Truman was able to make the allegedly do-nothing Republican Congress the issue, which was an incredible feat of legerdemain. To what extent will the Obama team be able to do that? They have all this time and if the record repeats itself, they’re going to have all the money in the world to do the work on all of these Republicans.
Gehrke: Look at 2008, though. The Obama campaign doesn’t view opposition research the same as every other candidate does, I think, and that could affect what comes out of it. You can see it in the last two years in how Obama dealt with the Republicans and pushed back and how, say, Bill Clinton did. So I don’t know if that will translate into a campaign situation or not. There’s going to be a lot of time for Republicans to look at themselves and talk about each other, and I don’t know how much Obama really has to step into that. A light tap here and there might be better than a very hard push.
Maloney: I think this team is going to be as aggressive as they have to be and will be salting things in. I think they’re already handing things to [Politico’s] Ben Smith, who seems to be the favorite receptacle for the latest research hit for the Democrats. There is no Republican-leaning analogue to Ben Smith at Politico or a Republican-leaning site on which such things can be placed effectively. Smith seems to be the favored person to get all the interesting stuff—especially on clients that I work for... I absolutely believe that they’re going to be effective and that they’re going to be on their game. In terms of the other races, certainly there is going to be more tracking and earlier tracking and in house races, Democrats are going to be vote focused because there are so many Republicans. For the Senate it’s going to be just the opposite, the Republicans are going to be doing vote stuff against the incumbent Democrats because there are so many more Democrats up this time.
Gehrke: Nineteen, I think.
Maloney: It’s going to be nineteen two successive times because you were successful in ’06 and ’08. ’14 if anything is going to be even more so.
C&E: Do you see the Obama people injecting themselves into the Republican primary?
Sefl: I would table that question actually. I think it’s too early to answer it.
Gehrke: You have to see how it develops. It’s so early right now. You can step back and, strategically, figure out a lot of reasons why they’d want to and a lot more why it’s dangerous and they don’t have to.
Maloney: The problem for Republicans is what new is there to say about Barack Obama that they don’t know already? I was the first to do Obama research in ’04 and I went back to Illinois to do research in ’08. One of the most amazing things to me—I spoke to a lot of people, and not a single person hated him. Indeed, everyone, even staffers who sat in those committee hearings and totally disagreed with what he was doing once the Democrats got the majority in the state Senate, everyone liked him personally, and that’s something—it’s very simple, very human, has nothing to do with research—but it’s going to be a major factor in ’12. What new can you tell people about him or what he’s done?