Joe Giardiello is a longtime practitioner of campaign opposition research…a profession usually associated with “dumpster diving” and meetings in dimly lit garages. Joe completely knows and accepts this reality, telling me he “generally tells women in bars that he clubs baby seals for a living. They seem to accept that more amicably.”
Wicked sense of humor, too.
Anyway, regardless of what you may think or how you may feel about opposition research in general, and negative campaigning in particular, both are INDISPENSABLE in a tough political campaign. Just ask Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Most importantly, in this regard, is that it’s not just enough to know *where* to look for potentially damaging information on your opponent, but to know how such information could possibly be used effectively in a dog-eat-dog political campaign. And THAT, as Joe explains in the column below, can often be worth its weight in gold…and be the difference between winning and losing.
Until next time. Onward and rightward…
Dr. Chuck Muth, PsD
Professor of Psephology
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Opposition Research: Thinking Like Your Worst Enemy
By Joe Giardiello
When doing opposition research (or research on your own candidate), think like the enemy. Get mean. Assume everything you read can be used in the most heinous, negative way. The true cynic makes the best researcher.
This also means thinking like a consultant. Real world political experience is indispensable in analyzing the data you find and how it can be used in an actual campaign.
Many smaller campaigns cannot afford to hire a professional researcher. (But, in a shameless plug for my profession, hire the pro if you can – dollar-for-dollar it may be the most effective expenditure of the campaign).
Yes, that college student volunteer may be the smartest guy on campus, able to find secret codes on the internet to allow him to reach new levels in the latest video game. He may even not mind spending hours poring through dusty court files in the basement of the county courthouse. But he has to know how to use what he reads.
A consultant once called me about doing research for a state legislative race. His candidate was running against an entrenched incumbent Democrat in an increasingly conservative district.
The biggest concern of the candidate was a divorce he had gone through a number of years earlier. He couldn’t remember anything specific that could be used but it was an extremely nasty, drawn out affair involving custody and alimony issues.
Despite being a targeted race, and the candidate putting in a large chuck of change himself, they decided to use a volunteer to go through the files. The candidate was uncomfortable with spending more money than he had to.
It was duly reported by the volunteer researcher that there was nothing of value that the opposition could use. Several weeks later I happened to have to go to the same courthouse for a different race. While waiting for copies to be made I decided to kill some time and take a look at the divorce file.
Divorce files are frequently the best source of negative information you can find – for obvious reasons. But I was certain that a six inch file would supply an even better than average number of hits. There was only one problem – there didn’t seem to be anything good in the file. Maybe the volunteer researcher was right after all.
But then, there it was: A simple memo from the judge sealing some of the records in the file. One line stood out:
“ORDER TO SEAL PETITION FOR PROTECTION ABUSE/PICTURES.”
Could this be true? Actual pictures of an abused wife or child? Talk about a direct mail writer’s dream come true.
“So what?” you may be thinking. The pictures were sealed; it’s not like they could be used in the campaign – which is probably precisely what the volunteer researcher thought. He was not thinking how to strategically use the information in the most negative way possible.
Anyone who has seen enough political direct mail is now forming the theme of the mail piece in their mind: Why did Candidate X have to have photos of domestic violence sealed in his divorce case?
Then would follow the outraged cries about how the candidate has an obligation to release all the gory details about his divorce, pictures and all. An underdog candidate would then spend the last couple of weeks of the campaign playing defense. A sure path to defeat.
Post script: It turned out the child abuse was actually committed by the candidate’s ex-wife – but she filed the photos and tried to blame her ex-husband. If you think this is irrelevant and it would prevent you from using the information, you aren’t thinking mean enough. You don’t have to accuse your opponent of anything; just ask the question and let him defend.
Joe Giardiello is a political consultant and opposition researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 907-5333.