Is Oppo necessary?
August 23, 2020 12:06 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine and I have discussed the idea of creating a consulting business for state politicians. However, as we've looked at other companies, many seem, to some extent, to be involved in opposition research. How many of them aren't trying to help their clients by finding the weaknesses of other candidates and how successful are they compared to those that are?

We're less interested in digging up dirt on opponents than helping candidates discover how they've portrayed in social and mainstream media, and public records so they aren't blindsided by their own history or by their opponents. But would we be disadvantaging ourselves by not conducting oppo? In other words, must mapping out a campaign strategy based on a candidate's goals and history include navigating through that of their opponent's? And do candidates have per-conceived notions of what oppo does? Do they expect it and/or can they win without it?

Also, is there an organization overseeing political consulting?
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
A small consulting firm that does this kind of thing without doing opposition research is Practical Political Consulting in Lansing, Michigan.
posted by yclipse at 1:11 PM on August 23, 2020

You can subcontract the opposition research and so I think it makes sense for you to identify contractors who you could work with, as oppo will come up.
posted by Glomar response at 1:12 PM on August 23, 2020

There is the American Association of Political Consultants.
posted by NotLost at 2:00 PM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a professional Democratic opposition researcher, I can tell you that many people, and especially candidates, have incorrect pre-conceived notions of what "oppo" is or does. Opposition research literally is "helping candidates discover how they've portrayed in social and mainstream media, and public records so they aren't blindsided by their own history or by their opponents."

When I am hired to write an opposition research report on a candidate, what I do is review all of that candidate's mainstream media clips, their social media postings, and their publicly available court, property, and business records, and then I write a report. That's it! That's what "digging up dirt" entails. When you read about situations like what's happening with Alex Morse that is NOT opposition research as it is ethically practiced by the vast majority of consultants.

If you don't want your firm to offer opposition research yourself, that's totally fine! Lots of communications firms don't do their own research in house. I second Glomar response's suggestion that you identify firms that you're comfortable working with because candidates often do need research on who their opponents are what's in their record, as well as the same kind of background on themselves. R

Research memos are typically the basis for writing polls, developing a positive message about your candidate and a contrast message with your opponents, and writing advertising scripts. Once I am finished with the background memos on candidates, I also offer fact checking of all campaign materials and advertisements and help with rapid response throughout a campaign. I won't say that candidates can't win without opposition research, but it's definitely a standard and expected part of most campaigns.
posted by fancypants at 2:25 PM on August 23, 2020 [10 favorites]

Yeah, what fancypants (and the OP) are describing is sometimes referred to as "self-oppo." A bit of a weird term, but people use it to mean "Finding out shit about yourself and assessing your own weaknesses before your opponents can exploit this information."
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:30 PM on August 23, 2020

Response by poster: One of the reasons Oppo is so confusing is because of articles like this - - that clearly talk about it as a "dark art." It is supposed to uphold ethical standards on one hand but some practitioners use it as a weapon and I'm thinking of Carl Rove and Lee Atwater in particular. Or is it only Republicans who weaponize it?
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:39 PM on August 23, 2020

One of the reasons Oppo is so confusing is because of articles like this - - that clearly talk about it as a "dark art."

if you were independent consultants writing up reports from what you found in public records, the "dark" or other use of that research would not be under your control. you would do the research, compile your findings, and hand them over. it's the campaign who paid for that research who would be deciding what to do with it.

(I have written research reports on companies and individuals for different purposes, some of which inevitably touched on political connections and the reputational issues pertaining thereto. My somewhat-informed understanding is that opposition research is very much like what I have done, just presented to clients in a differently tailored format; sometimes also including more direct on-the-ground personal interviewing and in-person fact checking than I usually had to bother with. Anyone who commissions an expensive report like this, in politics or in other spheres, wants to know anything about a research subject that might make the client look bad by association. that is: they want to know what the other side's 'opposition research' would uncover, or what might float up in media reports, before making any acquisitions or alliances or major hires. the techniques are the same, whatever side you work for.)

I think if you are even considering offering consulting services in this area, you need to have a little experience doing the work before you set yourself up as a business owner or manager of other people who do the work. but I think that about everything.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:57 PM on August 23, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think it would be worthwhile for you to spend some time learning what oppo research actually is before deciding whether your firm will offer it. Here are some resources that might help you get started:

NPR: What Is And Isn't Permissible In The World Of Campaign Opposition Research
Nesbitt Research: What is Opposition Research?
CBS: How do politicians gather opposition research on other candidates?
PBS News Hour: The ethical dos and don’ts of opposition research

I would also suggest taking a look at some of the opposition research "books" that the DCCC puts online. They do this to get around campaign finance restrictions, but the books themselves are a really good introduction to what a campaign research report looks like and what kind of information it typically contains. There are dozens of them for competitive House districts across the country available here:
posted by fancypants at 6:17 AM on August 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

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