The campaign season is heating up and lurking quietly behind the scenes are teams of opposition researchers whose daily jobs revolve around digging up dirt on their client’s opponents.
The no frills business of “oppo” research has a heavy hand in the campaign business, and those doing the dirty work are often responsible for an election’s most memorable moments. Think back to the 2012 presidential campaign when an opposition researcher unearthed the now-viral video of Republican candidate Mitt Romney delivering his infamous 47 percent comment.
“You want to find information that will cause media attention—something that will force the opponent off message. The more they’re off message, the less likely they are able to be successful in their campaign,” Larry Zilliox, founder and chief executive officer of Investigative Research Specialists LLC, said.
Zilliox should know. He wrote the book on it.
Seriously, Zilliox is the author of the "Opposition Researcher Handbook."
“It’s the only opposition research handbook out there!” he said.
Zilliox came to Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s to do private investigative work but found that the market was saturated with private investigators—“lots of retired agents and federal guys doing a lot of work for little money.”
He decided he had to specialize in something, so he turned to campaigns. Since then, he’s dug up dirt on everyone from local candidates running for city auditor to gubernatorial and congressional candidates across the country.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he said.
Now he’s basically the oppo research guru. He has his own research firm, he’s penned four editions of the "Opposition Research Handbook" and he instructs an opposition research boot camp, where he grooms classes of oppo- researcher-wannabees several times a year.
The first thing he tells his class—which is usually made up of private investigators, campaign staffers and “political types” clamoring to get their hands on the next big juicy nugget that could bring down a campaign, is to “never do something you wouldn’t be comfortable disclosing to a reporter on the evening news.”
Barring illegal activity, Zilliox said very few things are off limits, but of course, there are standards.
“If it’s illegal just don’t do it. You’re not there to cause a scene. You just want the opponent to come off message,” he said. “You’re not a spy. You’re a researcher.”
When he’s on assignment, Zilliox said one of the first things he does is research his own client to anticipate what the opposing campaigns might uncover.
“In politics the surprised look is often confused with the guilty look, Zilliox said. “It’s good for a candidate to have opposition on themselves so they know how the opponent will treat that information.”
Political strategist Brian Gottlieb of Purple Insights agrees and says finding out about your opponent is only half the job.
“It is important to know what the other side can find out about you so that your campaign can plan against potential attacks,” Gottlieb said. Without oppo research, “campaigns are left flying blind.”
Zilliox and other oppo researchers use all kinds of resources for their work, from the basics like court records and voting history to social media like Facebook and Twitter. “People post things online showing things they’ve done years ago—like using drugs or earning money as exotic dancers. It’s all out there,” Zilliox said. He added that the problem now is that there’s so much data and information online that it can sometimes be difficult to sort through the noise.
“You can spend a lot of time looking for things on the Internet...of course one way or another you always end up at a cat video,” he joked.
Though Zilliox frames himself solely as a researcher that simply provides information to campaigns, and ultimately, the public, his entire industry is typically thought of as part of the dark side of politics. After all, most of the content used in attack ads would never surface without opposition researchers.
Polls suggest that the public thinks negative ads hurt the country. At the height of the 2012 presidential election season, 74 percent of Americans said they believed campaigns have become more and more negative over time. And 64 percent of Americans said this negativity causes "a great deal" or "a significant amount" of harm to the country's political process, according to a Knights of Columbus-Marist survey.
When asked if he has ever been concerned that what he does is, indeed, harmful to the political process, Zilliox quickly said “no,” adding that campaigns believe it’s essential work.
“Their metrics that measure return on investment show them that it’s worth it,” Zilliox said. He also made clear that campaigns ultimately decide what goes public. “I just do the research.”
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