WASHINGTON -- It's no secret that rival campaigns were caught off guard by Donald Trump's ascent in the Republican primary. But the extent to which they are still left scrambling to prevent him from becoming the nominee -- on the eve of the crucial Super Tuesday primaries -- is alarming many Republicans and astonishing rival Democrats.
Multiple Republican campaign sources and operatives have confided that none of the remaining candidates for president have completed a major anti-Trump opposition research effort. There are several such efforts being run by outside conservative organizations. But those efforts are still gathering intel on the businessman after having started late in the primary season, these sources told The Huffington Post. And they worry that it may come too late.
"It is one of the many ways we underestimated him, I suppose," conceded one top Republican campaign official whose candidate has since exited the race.
For those hoping to blunt Trump's momentum, the late start on opposition research is no small problem. One operative compared it to not having ammunition at the precise moment when there is a collective realization that a Trump candidacy needs to be shot down. Shauna Daly, the former research director for the Democratic National Committee and the opposition research firm American Bridge, called it "malpractice."
"Not taking Trump seriously as a candidate a year ago was a mistake we all made, so I don't blame his Republican opponents for that. But the lack of evidence that they have been doing thorough research on Trump more recently is malpractice," said Daly. "[I]f a Republican had committed six recent college grads to power through a Nexis dump in November and December, by January they'd have been able to compile a powerful narrative amplified by names and quotes that they could have put in ads by now."
“The lack of evidence that they have been doing thorough research on Trump more recently is malpractice.”
Evidence of the failures of the Republican field to tackle this basic campaign function was never more clear than last week, when BuzzFeed News surfaced an old interview of Trump reluctantly supporting the invasion of Iraq. For anti-Trump Republicans, it was a welcome corrective to Trump's insistence that he consistently opposed going into Iraq. But it came with questions. Why did it take a news outlet to surface the damning quote -- and why did it take so long?
There are several answers.
The most common is that few campaigns actually thought Trump would last long, making the need to dig into his past rather moot. An official with Jeb Bush's super PAC, Right to Rise, said that when they started collecting video libraries on prospective candidates in March 2015, Trump "didn't even come up in the vetting because everyone thought it was a joke."
Once it became clear that their wishes for Trump's prompt demise wouldn't happen, they and other campaigns were left playing catch up. Only the money proved tighter than anticipated.
Jeb Bush's campaign, for example, did put together a Trump dossier consisting of past newspaper articles, video clips, issue statements and publicly available legal filings. But they didn't have the resources to dig deep on material that wasn't publicly accessible -- the stuff only obtained through going to courthouses and sites of Trump's various properties.
"From the beginning of the campaign we were shrinking our operation to get it down to scale rather than expand it. We had to focus our resources on the people who stood in our way in New Hampshire," said Tim Miller, Bush's communications director. "To go and invest in original research on Trump’s businesses, which would have yielded the big investigative stories from news outlets, takes an enormous investment of resources that we didn’t have."
Other campaigns felt the crunch as well. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) waited until November to bring on board Joe Pounder, one of the party's top opposition research operatives. Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) campaign didn't comment, but Cruz chose to cozy up to Trump in the early stage of the race. The governors, meanwhile, spent much of their time bickering with each other, and aides to several of those campaigns said that their opposition research reflected those priorities.
"I think everyone was and is waiting for someone else to do it," said the Republican campaign official.
“I think everyone was and is waiting for someone else to do it.”
Presented with that void, outside conservative groups have frantically moved to cobble something together. Two GOP operatives, Liz Mair and Rick Wilson, formed Trump Card LLC, a group meant to funnel money to a guerilla-style anti-Trump ad campaign and a robust opposition research effort. Wilson told HuffPost that he decided to do it after it became apparent that the presidential candidates weren't.
The same was true with a professional opposition researcher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This past fall, she decided to start digging into Trump as a side gig to her own job, convinced that the campaign staff either wasn't up to the task or were too unfamiliar with bankruptcy and SEC filings (as opposed to more traditional political documents).
"They didn't know how to get a grip on it," the researcher said. "It's just being able to connect the dots and to know where to work."
Whether the fruits of this late opposition-research push or the investigative work of the reporters themselves, some critical, deeply investigated articles on Trump have begun popping up. On Wednesday, Bloomberg News had a comprehensive look at Trump's troubled international business dealings. And on Thursday, The New York Times reported that Trump had been relying heavily on foreign labor at his Florida resort, in contrast with a campaign promise to create jobs for American workers.
But it is treated as a truism among Republicans that a vast reservoir of damaging opposition research remains untouched. It's a suspicion that Democrats aren't challenging. Indeed, one Democratic opposition research said that they’ve spent the past eight months compiling material on Trump as he’s risen up the ranks. That's actually not a lot of time. Democrats had started focusing on Mitt Romney in 2009 -- a full two years before he ran again for the presidency. But those eight months have produced some good.
That researcher estimated that of all the material they’ve compiled -- court and property records, newspaper clips and videos -- approximately 80 percent of it has yet to surface in this election cycle.