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Political opposition researchers dish dirt, predict long slog to November election

By Fred Graver
Rock Center

Chris Lehane sits in a well-appointed home in the upscale Presidio neighborhood of San Francisco and ponders the fate of political candidates.  As a veteran “Opposition Researcher” (or “Oppo” man) who still carries a few scars from the rough scrum of the Clinton Administration, Lehane knows what’s ahead for anyone who yearns for higher office.

“Every single aspect of your life is going to be turned over and scrutinized,” he smiles. “You, your spouse, your kids, everything that you’ve ever done is going to be looked at.”

Lehane is just one of the many people who are fully-employed this election season, digging up the dirt that will be turned into the mud that gets slung all along the campaign trail. Lehane’s advisory firm is one of many who advise candidates about what dirt they can sling and what might be slung at them. There are even Super-Pacs, such as the Democratic group “American Bridge 21st Century,” who are funded solely for the purpose of doing oppo.

As befits the age of internet transparency, Oppo people no longer hide under the dark rocks of the political landscape. From Rodell Mollineau at “American Bridge” to Jonathan Collegio at the conservative “American Crossroads” (co-founded by White House veteran Karl Rove), they are more than open about what they do.


We are, they say, living in the “golden age” of opposition research, where the Internet has not only made it easier than ever to find negative details about a candidates life, innovations like YouTube and Twitter allow them to take their message right to the people. As Ben Smith of Buzzfeed.com puts it, “The Super Pacs have become their own media outlets.”

Oppo research is most often associated with negative campaign advertisements and was a major part of the effort to inflict major damage against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. The “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” organization's ads have been called a deciding factor in the Bush-Kerry race. Research surfaced a group of men who had voiced doubts about John Kerry’s war record. Negative ads, which ran in the final months of the campaign, spread the “Oppo” into the political bloodstream.

While opposition research relies on diligent investigation of sometimes arcane facts (for example, that John Edwards spent $400 on a Beverly Hills salon haircut), it’s the weaving together of many of those facts to create a negative storyline that makes this approach such a powerful weapon.  “A voter is not going to go through all of these data points and decide whether or not they’re going to vote for someone,” says Jonathan Collegio. “They need to have a package for them.”

Rodell Molineau defended that packaging and says that the public can’t be “spoon fed” lies.

“The way we look at our role, is to find the truth,” he said. “It needs to be grounded in some sort of fact, because the American people are not stupid.”

As for the coming general election – both sides say they’ve got a few aces up their sleeve, whether it’s Mollineau’s claim that Romney’s habit of saying the wrong thing at the right time is “the gift that keeps on giving” (should he be the Rebublican nominee), or Collegio’s admission that “our strategy for President Obama is something that would be very close to our chest.” Either way – it’s going to be a long hard slog through the mud to this November.

Editor's note: Rock Center's inside look at opposition research airs Wednesday, Mar. 28, at 10pm/9c on NBC.