WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was a little noticed event in Texas governor Rick Perry’s schedule, an October 28 visit to the Barley House tavern in Concord, New Hampshire, to sample a burger and be interviewed by a local radio station.
The flagging candidate for the Republican nomination was addressing a tiny audience of about 10 in this early primary state. He told the story of a 38-year-old Occupy Wall Street protestor named Jeremy, who had complained that bankers got to work so early that he never managed to get out of bed in time to insult them face-to-face.
“I guess greed just makes you work hard,” joked Perry, who said that his son had told him about the lazy protestor. What Perry didn’t realize is that “Jeremy” was fictional, part of a satirical column by the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Mark Schatzker mocking reactions to the Occupy movement.
Also in the small crowd at the Barley House was a “tracker” from American Bridge, a newly formed SuperPAC doing research for the Democratic Party. The tracker was videotaping Perry’s every word and gesture, and even though the gaffe was a relatively minor one, the candidate was about to become a victim of the latest, state-of-the-art opposition research.
When George Allen, a former governor of Virginia running for the Senate, made his ruinous “Macaca” comment on August 11, 2006, it was four days before the crude video of his ethnic slur was posted on YouTube. As it turns out, the insult, which cost him the election, had been aimed at a volunteer for Allen’s Democratic opponent, who was following Allen around with a video camera — a memorable early example of the guerrilla tactics that have since been turbo-charged by new technologies.
The Perry tracker’s high definition footage - sharp enough to be used later in a campaign ad if needed - traveled quickly from his laptop to American Bridge headquarters in DC, then out to Mediaite, a website that had been busting Republicans who referred to Jeremy as a damning reality, not a joke.
David Frum, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush who now runs FrumForum, then tweeted an item that sent the Perry clip global. Within hours, the video had been picked up by The Houston Chronicle, The National Post, and many political blogs.
“This is a golden age” of opposition research, said Jeff Berkowitz, who dug dirt on Democratic candidates for the Republican National committee from 2002 to 2010. The sort of search tools that discovered presidential candidate Joe Biden’s plagiarism in 1987 have become more sophisticated and the outlets to shop damaging information are now virtually unlimited.
When these advances are “combined with outside funding,” Berkowitz said, “you will see significantly more opposition research from significantly more sources.” And it will all happen at warp speed, as both Republican candidate Herman Cain and the women who accused him of sexual harassment quickly learned, amid a barrage of daily revelations about their personal lives.
American Bridge is typical of the new reality. It was founded in November 2010, after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case opened the door to “SuperPACs,” political action committees that are able to raise unlimited amounts of anonymous money to craft attack and advocacy ads during campaigns. The fledgling Democratic research organization now has 15 trackers nationwide filming GOP candidates for Congress and the White House and 25 researchers in Washington poring over this footage and pushing it out to the public.
“The fastest way to disseminate information is through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook,” American Bridge’s Communications Director Chris Harris told Reuters. “And if it’s good footage, it will spread exponentially.”
Berkowitz agrees: “Now YouTube is old hat. Now you have Twitter. Twitter is better because it breaks news faster. You can push things around on Twitter. It’s like wildfire. Twitter both provides information and also provides the dissemination mechanism. Campaigns are going to have to adapt to that.”
The first step, says Berkowitz, who still advises the RNC and today heads Berkowitz Public Affairs, is to turn the microscope on your own candidate. You should assume that any problems lurking in his or her past will come out - and that trying to bury or deny them will probably backfire.
This sort of “vulnerability study” allows the campaign to develop its “response matrix” — a precaution clearly not taken by Cain’s campaign. When news of sexual harassment claims against him first broke, Cain made a number of contradictory statements the next day, seriously undercutting his credibility.
Berkowitz, bespectacled and lightly bearded, is just 32 — testament to what a young person’s game oppo research has become. “The hours are brutal,” he says.
But the rules are simple: Define your opponent early. Work as many hours as it takes. Get whatever you can on the other guy - as long as it’s legal and won’t come back to haunt you.
“If you have a research guy saying that trash on the curb is public property and you can go through it, you probably don’t want them on the team,” Berkowitz said. “Is the benefit of what you get from the trash worth the damage that would be caused if it was discovered you searched an opponent’s trash?”
Berkowitz was part of a core team that put in 16-hour days for 18 months to discredit 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry, who narrowly lost to Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Seven years later, Berkowitz still is barely able to contain his glee when he recalls the moment Kerry answered a question about war funding with the now infamous words: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
But it took many hours of meticulous effort to reach that point. Determined to define Kerry as a flip-flopper, Berkowitz’s team had been handed a trove of documents from Kerry’s 1984 Senate campaign, in which Kerry had produced a laundry list of weapons programs to cancel - many of which, in 2004, were being used in Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror.
“We spent several months building this huge binder of research,” Berkowitz said.
They crafted a campaign ad and released it one day before Kerry appeared before a veterans group in West Virginia. A veteran who had seen the ad asked the $87-billion-dollar question.
“I said that if we win this thing, then this is the moment we won it. It was March 16, 2004. I’ll never forget it.” He added: “Winning elections is not about policy issues. It’s about character and trust issues.”
This Kerry incident also demonstrated that oppo research has a very long shelf life. A dossier assembled by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s campaign when he was challenged by Mitt Romney in 1994 remains a rich source on Romney’s career at Bain, where some of his takeover deals resulted in layoffs and benefit cuts. Democratic strategists are ready to attack Romney as a job-destroying corporate raider if he becomes the GOP nominee.
In 2008, Yvan Yost, a veteran RNC researcher, was working for presidential candidate John McCain. The oppo file by McCain’s campaign on primary opponent Mitt Romney just this month became grist for a scathing attack on Romney by the RedState blog.
Yost is now chief researcher for Romney, so his earlier work amounts to the ultimate “vulnerability study” for his current boss. Overall, Romney is thought to have the best oppo team in this Republican primary, with Yost as chief of research and Matt Rhoades, another veteran of RNC opposition research, as campaign manager. No one in the Romney organization would comment.
The rise of the SuperPACs will likely take opposition research to a new level in the 2012 campaign. Already, some of these have huge war chests: American Crossroads, a Republican SuperPAC created by Bush’s former chief political strategist Karl Rove, disclosed that it spent $70 million in 2010 - mostly on congressional races - and plans to spend another $240 million this election cycle, primarily on attacking Democratic candidates, including an onslaught against President Barack Obama.
American Bridge is tiny by comparison, with $3.1 million raised from donors such as Hollywood producer Steve Bing, Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance, and the labor unions SEIU and ACSME. But it hopes to pull in $15 million by the end of 2012, and other SuperPACs have formed on the Democratic side.
The fact that the SuperPACs, by law, operate independent of individual campaigns cancels the political calculus that makes a candidate leery of becoming personally associated with the most salacious or vicious attacks. Barack Obama apologized after his staff circulated a memo headlined “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab),” suggesting that Bill and Hillary Clinton supported outsourcing American jobs because they had invested in India and Bill Clinton had accepted big speaking fees from Cisco, which had moved work to India.
“When you had a direct connection between a campaign and the research being done, there is only so far you could go,” says Berkowitz. “Now, with these SuperPACs, anyone who believes deeper investigation needs to be done doesn’t have to wait for the campaign or the party committee to agree on them. They can just fund it themselves and move forward.”
And if a campaign and a SuperPAC independently discover the same damaging information on an opponent, Berkowitz adds, “you have two different thought processes as to when it best helps the candidate to get it out there.”
Between cell phone cameras, Wikileaks, and social media, oppo research is no longer “a controlled environment,” Berkowitz warns. “Anyone can be an opposition researcher today. Citizen bloggers can do research and post it online. There are a lot more competitors in analyzing and disseminating and timing.”
Yet it seems that candidates have not yet learned that any comment in any venue can end up on the front page. An American Bridge tracked recently taped Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, who is running for the U.S. Senate, comparing welfare recipients to lazy raccoons eating free beetles from a bucket.
“Its like grapes in a jar,” he noted in a public speech. “The raccoons - they’re not stupid, they’re gonna do the easy way if we make it easy for them. Just like welfare recipients across America. If we don’t send them to work, they’re gonna take the easy route.”
Before long that footage was on Twitter, YouTube and the website of Nebraska’s largest newspaper. Bruning later apologized.
Editing by Lee Aitken