At least once a cycle, usually when there is a lull in the campaign frenzy, opposition researchers get re-introduced to the world in some breathless news report. Some common threads run through these stories. For instance, a furrowed brow reporter talking about these sly people who shower campaigns with mud, making opposition researchers seem like ninja character assassins.
The latest version occurred on NBC's Rock Center. In the introduction, NBC's Willie Geist points out that researchers "dig up the dirt that gets turned into mud." This makes research sound interesting and mysterious.
The truth is far more mundane and boring. Researchers don't dig up dirt... they trade in facts. They don't slink around in trench coats spying, they labor in front of computers, pore through websites and spend horrific amounts of time performing searches in county courthouses. They are the campaign nerds, far more likely to be cast in Freaks and Geeks than in a James Bond film.
I can say these things with confidence, because I've been doing opposition research for the better part of two decades (and might, just might, resemble the aforementioned nerd). Geist's predictable, sensationalized and misleading report is par for the course when it comes to discussing opposition research. Filming the actual life of an opposition researcher makes for lousy copy.
First, researchers aren't clandestine. I've been called a great many things on the campaign trail, but stealthy ain't one of them. Whether it's talking to staff at the courthouse, or video taping the candidates on the trail, researchers are taught to be open about their identity. If you don't lie, you can't get in trouble.
Second, researchers gather facts. That means getting disclosures, reading thousands of newspaper articles, rummaging through tons of votes and watching countless videos on Youtube. Depending on the history of a given candidate, this process can take weeks or even months.
Finally, after going through all these documents, researchers then synthesize the information into a report, highlighting the weaknesses of an opposing candidate. In many cases, the researchers review their own candidate, to help them prepare for the upcoming campaign.
If you've managed to read the preceding three paragraphs without falling asleep, you can understand why the actual lives of opposition researchers aren't portrayed on screen. Research is integral to a campaign, but is about as exciting as actuarial tables.
The truth is, research is the factual foundation for a campaign. And just because those facts run counter to an opponent's message, does not make them dirty.
For instance, in 2006, I was working for the reelection of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Her opponent was multi-millionaire businessman and Amway heir Dick Devos. Devos spent millions on television ads suggesting his business acumen was just the right thing to fix the Michigan economy (sounds familiar, doesn't it?).
However, in reading through old articles and business reports, we found that during his time at Amway, Devos had cut jobs in Michigan while building manufacturing plants in China.
These were pertinent facts about Devos' business background, but obviously didn't appear in any of his ads. Was it dirty politics to inform voters of his entire business background? Or does NBC think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to choosing our leaders?
Sensationalizing opposition research may make for good television. But gathering facts, unearthing the truth, revealing sins of omission and countering false information makes for good, honest campaigns. And that's what opposition researchers do. If only television news reports could say the same.