Global Politics

Examining the role of political opposition researchers

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The race for the White House concludes in just six months and the primary players are set. As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama go at it, the role of opposition research is coming into focus. (Photo by UpstateNYer via Wikimedia Commons.)

With the United States presidential election just six months away, any skeletons in candidates' closets, like past allegations of bullying, are likely to be unearthed.

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That's due in large part to political opposition research. Alan Huffman, an opposition researcher and coauthor of We're With Nobody said most clients hire researchers to dig up dirt on their opponents, but that doesn't happen as often as they expect.

"The candidate is going to expect us to at least portray their opponent is a way that they can be able to use in the campaign. But what most people don't realize is that we also do this to the candidate we're working for," Huffman said.

While political candidates may expect to get more useful information on their opponents than themselves, opposition researchers will also compile information about their clients that can be used against them.

"It's awful. That's our least favorite part of the job because the candidate never wants to hear what is wrong with him, and they have to do it because that way they'll know what the other side has got because the other side has got somebody just like us out there doing the exact same things," Huffman said. "And sometimes we actually catch their scent, you know, we'll be in a courthouse and they'll say, 'Well somebody was in here yesterday asking for the exact same information,' so you know they're out there and that's why the candidate has to do it. But it doesn't make it any more pleasant when you have to say, 'Oh, by the way, you've been late paying taxes four times and they're overdue right now, and maybe you should go over there this afternoon.'"

Huffman said a candidate being late with tax payments was a real situation he encountered through his work. He said that sometimes researchers have to work with someone who they find morally suspect.

"I mean, it's inevitable, right? Your party is not always right, and even if you agree with what the person represents, it doesn't mean they're a good potential leader," Huffman said. "So, you know what? Usually when that happens, they lose. Michael (Rejebian) and I can usually spot it and we'll say, 'You know what? The opponent is the stronger of the two,' and in most cases, not always but in most cases, the opponent wins."

Sometimes the candidates will use the research on their opponents for attack ads. Huffman said the truth can get distorted through that process, though. 

"We're trained in the print media, so we're not used to speaking in 15 and 20 second sound bytes. So when we see our work reduced, we inevitably cringe because there's always more to the story than that, but sometimes they're right on and that is kind of fulfilling for us," Huffman said.

Huffman said he's "fulfilled" when the truth comes out because voters should know who their elected leaders are. However, not everyone respects his craft. He said he has beenn followed by "thugs."

"There's a lot at stake in politics. And we get threatening phone calls and these sorts of things, and it's really a mix of these sorts of episodes and then the boring tedium," Huffman said. "But the things that we look for when we see someone trying to intimidate us or throw obstacles in our path, it just tells us we're getting warm."

However, Huffman said he doesn't have to try to be secretive because most of the time he is able to ask questions and get records without anyone knowing what he's using the information for. It remains to be seen what more will come out about the 2012 presidential candidates through opposition research.

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