The Cost of Dirt

Dave Montgomery of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram has put together a story on where candidates get the “dirt” on their opponents. Last summer I sat in on a presentation by a couple of firms specializing in “oppo” (opposition research) and was somewhat surprised to find out what a specialized industry it has become.  Firms like Jon Doner & AssociatesVR Research, and Stanford Research specialize in providing research into candidates. As the article makes clear, it’s a thriving enterprise.

The opposition research people I’ve heard from adamantly deny that they’re engaged in “dumpster diving” and going through trash cans looking for tidbits that would embarrass a candidate. Even if you don’t have ethical concerns about this kind of snooping, the last thing you want your candidate having to do is defending how they got information. These researchers prefer to go through tax and other public records to see if opponents have paid their taxes, taken trips funded by private interests, or used public funds to pay for personal fun. Sometimes they do take a dive into public records like divorce or other civil proceedings that might be a little too personal for some voters’ tastes. However, most firms claim to stick to the high road and avoid snooping with private detectives.

Many campaigns suggest that one of the first things a campaign does is conduct opposition research on their own candidate. Candidates are surprised to learn which indiscretions can become public and how relatively innocent acts can sound in the hands of a crafty campaign consultant.

It’s not really fair to blame these candidates and oppo research firms for the state of campaigns. However, they only dig up the dirt–voters allow them to make the dirt an issue.

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