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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The 2008 presidential candidates are crisscrossing the country attending fundraisers and rallies, smiling for the cameras. Here's the picture you don't see - almost every one of them has a small army of people who quietly spend hours bent over file cabinets and microfilm, searching through tax records, divorce decrees, parking tickets and college papers.

It's the hidden side of high-stakes politics. Know thine enemies and then do your best to exploit their weaknesses, missteps.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty. He allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who -

NORRIS: Morsels that highlight hypocrisy.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Four lavish mansions, a beachfront estate, over $30 million, another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #3: I heard George Bush get up and say I served in the 187th Air National Guard in Montgomery, Alabama. Really? You know, that was my unit. And I don't remember seeing you there.

NORRIS: You could call it digging for dirt, but these days opposition research, or oppo, as it's called, is a multi-million-dollar business with investigators, consultants, pollsters and political activists - all combing through candidates' backgrounds.

Mr. DAVID BOSSIE (Citizens United): You need to define yourself as a candidate and define your opponent to the voters. And if you can be the person who defines your opponent, as opposed to your opponent defining him or herself, you can win.

NORRIS: That's David Bossie, an investigator who has researched the backgrounds of Bill Clinton and John Kerry. He heads a conservative political organization called Citizens United.

Mr. BOSSIE: Opposition research can be incredibly expensive - tens of thousands of dollars a month, hundreds of thousands of dollars during a campaign cycle for president. And campaigns that take their campaign seriously will make that investment, because that investment will pay enormous dividends and have the opportunity to have just catastrophic impact on your opponent.

NORRIS: Jason Stanford certainly knows that. He has been doing opposition research since 1994, when he was hired by Texas Governor Ann Richards to peer into George W. Bush's background. He now has his own firm specializing in background research for Democratic candidates. He says simply finding a past blemish is not always enough to change voters' minds.

Mr. JASON STANFORD (Political Investigator): It has to be accurate. It has to be relevant. And there are different levels of relevance for voters on this kind of thing. And voters are very sophisticated about sorting through all the negative information to find the most credible relevant information for themselves.

Let me give you an example, the behavior of family members is about the least relevant thing you can use against a politician. And yet they keep doing it in American politics. Think Billy Carter. Think Roger Clinton. Think Jenna and Barbara Bush. We keep using these things in American politics to attack politicians, and voters are really sophisticated and say yeah, that's pretty funny and interesting but I'm not going to use it to make my choice.

What they do use to make their choices are things like your voting record, who you take money from, what your business record is and whether or not you say one thing and do another. According to my own experience, and pretty much all the evidence we see around us, voters are really sophisticated about seeking out relevant, fair, negative attacks to make their choices.

NORRIS: How common is opposition research in American politics? It's been said that opposition research is much like plastic surgery in Hollywood, much practiced, but rarely talked about.

Mr. STANFORD: Yeah. And it doesn't usually look as good. But that being said, when I got into this business in 1994, I was typically competing against college interns, who campaigns insisted could do my job for free and just as well. Now I'm competing against people who are, you know, colleagues, people who have been doing this for a long time and hundreds of campaigns and know how to do it right. Opposition research now is ubiquitous. I've done it for races as small as city council in one-stoplight towns. It's what you do before you do a poll. It's what you do so that you can give voters relevant information.

NORRIS: Give voters relevant information.

Mr. STANFORD: Right.

NORRIS: That sounds like it's a public service almost in the way that you -

Mr. STANFORD: Absolutely it is. We're the only ones who are accountable to documented fact. If it weren't for us, we have to take politicians at their word, and I don't think any one wants that.

NORRIS: Now we talked about trying to find information on an opponent, but before you begin researching your opponent, it seems that a candidate might need to research their own background to make sure that there are no problems that an opponent can exploit.

Mr. STANFORD: Oh yeah.

NORRIS: So how and when do you do self-research?

Mr. STANFORD: That's step number one. You do that first. You gotta dig through every thing, and there are little clues that I have, you know, little red flags in a candidate interview that tell me that there's something wrong. One, it was an amicable divorce. Two, it's the normal course of business. And three, you don't have to look into that. If I hear any of those things in an interview with one of my candidates, I know I really better pay attention to those things.

NORRIS: Now there have been examples where people have pointed out problems in their opponent's record and only to discover that they have the same problem on their own record.

Mr. STANFORD: Yeah, that's a good lesson.

NORRIS: They live in the proverbial glass house.

Mr. STANFORD: Well, yeah. And that's really the largest function of opposition research is to make sure that you are not setting your candidate up for hypocrisy. Look at the Michael Huffington/Dianne Feinstein 1994 Senate race. One candidate attacked another for hiring an illegal immigrant to be their nanny or their cleaning lady and it turned out the next day that the candidate who made the charge have done the very same thing.

It just made everyone look stupid and amateurish. And I think one of the benefits of having such a professional consulting class like we do in this country that's really been attacked lately is that we don't want to look stupid, and so we try to prevent these things from happening.

NORRIS: So what if the problem is big and hard to explain and you can't erase it, you just can't make it go away?

Mr. STANFORD: Well, then you prepare to change the subject. You prepare to find an equal and opposite attack in the opponent's record, and you accuse them of hypocrisy and then you try to change the subject to your education plan as quickly as possible.

NORRIS: Is it any wonder that the American public holds their nose when they think about politics?

Mr. STANFORD: I think the biggest problem with American politics is that it's largely boring and vapid. The people in charge of positive political rhetoric have largely advocated their responsibility to say anything relevant or interesting. And we see this in the reaction to negative politics. Negative messages in political ads are more memorable and motivate voters more to go vote. It's the positive stuff is turning everyone off. It's just boring.

NORRIS: That's Jason Stanford, who tries to keep things interesting by searching candidates' backgrounds at his firm in Austin, Texas.

Opposition research has become more prevalent and more potent with changes in technology and an overall coarsening of American politics.

John Harris is a journalist who's covered politics in Washington for the past two decades. He's also the author of "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008." He says the real turning point was the 1988 presidential race, when George H.W. Bush faced Michael Dukakis.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Author, "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008"): To some degree, you can point to 1988 as the year when presidential politics became so personal, so aggressive, in some ways, so vicious, and we now take that almost as a given that's just the nature of campaigns at the presidential level and really all the way down, in many cases, to the local level.

NORRIS: By the fall of 1988, Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead in the polls, based on his success in strengthening the Massachusetts economy as governor, the so-called Massachusetts Miracle.

Mr. HARRIS: There was a consensus among Washington journalists that Dukakis was going to be the next president. That's when opposition research kicked in.

NORRIS: That year, the Republican National Committee, led by Lee Atwater, created an aggressive oppo campaign. Dozens of volunteers staffed three shifts around the clock to feed the then burgeoning 24-hour news cycle. The goal was to paint two distinctly different pictures of the two candidates. And that's exactly what candidate George H.W. Bush did in August of 1988 at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the pledge of allegiance? My opponent says no. And I say yes.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: The Bush campaign systematically attacked the Dukakis record, and despite his effort to portray himself as a new Democrat, the GOP branded Dukakis as a traditional soft on crime liberal, says conservative activist David Bossie.

Mr. BOSSIE: And then you had obviously the Michael Dukakis weak on crime issue, which was really pinpointed by the now-infamous or famous Willie Horton situation, which was Michael Dukakis let Willie Horton out on a weekend furlough program that he supported, and of course this murderer went on a rampage, and the rest is history.

Unidentified Man: Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes - Dukakis on crime.

Mr. BOSSIE: That really defined Michael Dukakis and it really sunk his candidacy as well.

NORRIS: Four years later in 1992, Democrats had learned their lesson. Candidate Bill Clinton created his own aggressive oppo strategy, this time with a twist -rapid response. In the era of Blackberrys and instant messaging, fax machines may seem like old school technology, but in 1992, they were somewhat novel. And as Clinton communications director Jeff Eller told NPR back then, they were an effective weapon on the campaign trail.

Mr. JEFF ELLER (Former Communications Director for Clinton): What it does is, it allows you to respond within the same news cycle. We try to get things into the hands of the traveling press corps that travels with the president to get our side into the story, and the technology has allowed you to do it virtually instantaneously.

NORRIS: The Clinton campaign took advantage of other new technologies as well, cell phones and what was then a new generation of pagers that for the first time featured text messaging. Here's John Harris.

Mr. HARRIS: They would want to get messages to the reporters not covering the Clinton campaign, but those on the Bush campaign, saying why don't you ask this? Get their response to X, Y, or Z charge.

NORRIS: David Bossie says the Clinton campaign set a new standard for oppo research.

Mr. BOSSIE: Counter charges of record correction could be done immediately, so they broke the mold with research that was at their fingertips and then using it in a rapid response format that had really never been seen before, and they were just, to be perfectly honest they were fantastic at it. They beat a campaign who was just, who was not as good at it.

NORRIS: John Harris says each new technological advance, blogs and YouTube, for instance, have changed they way negative information is gathered and distributed.

Mr. HARRIS: What we've seen in presidential politics is that every successive election cycle, the news cycle speeds up. The technology has allowed communication to be quicker. It's not yet clear to me how that's going to manifest itself in 2008, but it's obvious to me that in some way there will be some kind of technological innovation that will once again accelerate the news cycle and intensify this notion of politics as war.

NORRIS: And that means there will be no shortage of business for people who make a living digging for political dirt, people like Jason Stanford. He says there's no shame in his work, but he knows not everyone feels the same way.

Mr. STANFORD: I went back to my high school reunion and I told this girl I always had a crush on what I was doing for a living, and she got this awful, pained look on her face and said well, that's nice.

Yeah, it wasn't a good day.

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