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Dirty politics

A four-part series on opposition research and presidential campaigns

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When it comes to presidential elections, all politics is dirty. As Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis’s campaign manager in 1988, says, “He who doesn’t throw mud ends up covered in it.” The 2008 election has been no exception to the truth that Dukakis learned the hard way, and we can look forward to almost six more months of mud blizzards before Election Day clears the campaign skies in November.

Already the dirt has been flung far and wide. Forged e-mails sought to portray Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign as publicizing rival Rudy Giuliani’s links to an alleged pedophile priest. John Edwards was mocked for pre-interview primping and a $400 haircut. Barack Obama has spent much of the campaign fighting an Internet whisper campaign contending (falsely) that he is a Muslim, and a Pew Research Center poll in March found that 1 in 10 Americans still believed the rumor.

In any presidential campaign, successful candidates have two fairly simple imperatives. The first is relatively easy: to promote yourself. The other is to knock down your opponent. This side of the equation can get nasty — smears, misleading advertising, and outright dirty tricks make up the dark underbelly of the democratic process. The political operatives whose specialty this is, known as opposition researchers, are widely considered the lowest form of life in the campaign business. Their work happens below the radar screen and outside the polite forums of televised debates and Iowa barbeque cook-offs. It’s also what usually makes or breaks a candidate for the White House.

This year opposition researchers have changed the campaign in many ways, most notably by straining their eyeballs watching untold hours of sermon videos to find the controversial snippets that have led both Obama and John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, to break ties with preachers who supported them.

Senator George Allen’s “Macaca Moment”Their work is always secretive, but is growing less so. The deathbed revelations of the famous GOP political strategist Lee Atwater included the news that George H.W. Bush had 35 researchers working on his 1988 campaign, all working to dig up dirt on Dukakis. Today, this would hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Opposition research has become such an accepted part of campaigns that in August 2007 Michael Gehrke, the director of research at the Democratic National Committee, went public at a convention of bloggers to lay out the party’s research strategy, afterwards acknowledging to a reporter from Politico that much of his material “is discovered by people in their [the bloggers’] world.”

Gehrke, a lawyer who ran the opposition research arm of the Clinton White House and who worked on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, makes just under $100,000; his counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Shawn Reinschmiedt, earns more than $80,000. Both oversee staffs of researchers who comb through the candidates’ records looking for inconsistencies or dumb comments that might work well in an ad or that could be pitched to reporters for some “earned media” (as opposed to the “paid media” of advertising).

For the 2008 primary season, the leading candidates and their national political parties are expected to spend more than $1 million on their top research staff — a bargain considering how much free media their slings of mud can attract. By the time November rolls around, it’s widely projected that the candidates will have raised and spent more than $1 billion — and opposition research is such an efficient use of campaign money that it actually holds down costs. Dan Schnur, who served as McCain’s communications director during his 2000 presidential campaign, told the Center, that it is “generally accepted that a message delivered through the media is more credible than a message disseminated through paid advertising.” James Pinkerton, who supervised Atwater’s 35 researchers back in 1988, concurs. “Opposition research,” he said in an interview, “if it’s true, is probably 5 or 10 times more effective than paid media.”

In addition to the traditional work of combing public records, Gehrke this year also sent out a fundraising appeal suggesting that the DNC was beefing up its “tracker” program. The party put video crews on the ground in the early primary states to follow almost all the candidates in the hopes of capturing another “macaca” moment, referring to the now-famous video of former Virginia senator George Allen calling an Indian-American tracker for his opponent’s campaign a “macaca,” an apparent racial slur. The video is thought to have cost Allen his 2006 reelection and squashed his plans to run for president. Now that John McCain is the Republican nominee, the DNC’s website features raw footage of his campaign appearances, collected by paid staffers and volunteers, who are hoping that McCain’s own words will work against him.

In 2000, the BBC filmed a documentary on the inner workings of the RNC’s opposition research operation called “Digging the Dirt.” The film focused on Barbara Comstock, the lawyer who oversaw the RNC war room. Comstock had been a senior aide to Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, during the heady years of the Clinton administration when Burton conducted investigations into Clinton fundraising and other White House scandals. Comstock beefed up the RNC’s research arm by hiring many of the same people who had worked with her on Capitol Hill, lawyers in particular. The Washington Post dubbed Comstock a “one-woman wrecking crew” in her targeting of presidential nominee Al Gore and other Democratic leaders.

Comstock’s deputy was Tim Griffin, a lawyer who had worked for Burton and, previously, for the special prosecutor who investigated Henry Cisneros, a Clinton administration secretary of housing and urban development who resigned in scandal. In the BBC documentary, Griffin is shown standing in front of a sign that says “ON MY COMMAND — UNLEASH HELL (ON AL).”

Among other things, Comstock’s unit was responsible for turning up Gore testimony in which he claimed he hadn’t been present for a critical fundraising meeting because he drank a lot of iced tea and was in the bathroom. The incident ended up as late night talk show fodder, a money shot for opposition researchers.

Both Griffin and Comstock went on to work in the Bush administration. Griffin worked as the research director for George W. Bush’s 2004 election campaign as well, before going on to work for Karl Rove at the White House. Griffin landed in headlines in 2007 when the news broke that the Justice Department had removed the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, so that Griffin could be installed there instead. In congressional testimony about that and other U.S. attorney firings, Monica Goodling, an assistant to the attorney general, made reference to allegations that Griffin had also been involved in “vote caging” (sending mail to voters and selectively challenging the voter registrations of those who are apparently not at that address) activities to suppress minority voter turnout in Florida during the 2004 election.

Griffin has since left the U.S. attorney’s office and now works for Mercury Public Affairs, where he did work for the failed Fred Thompson campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination. Thompson paid the firm $30,000 in June and August 2007. For the 2008 campaign, Comstock worked for Mitt Romney, whose campaign paid her firm, Corallo Comstock, $75,000 between February and June of 2007.

From Opposition Researcher to U.S. Attorney: Tim Griffin (Department of Justice)In every election, there is always at least one candidate who promises to run above the fray, eschewing politics as usual and pledging to maintain the moral high ground. In 2008, both Obama and McCain have vowed to take the high road. McCain has taken fire for having registered lobbyists on his campaign payroll and had to disavow what he called “disparaging remarks” about both Obama and Clinton, made by radio host Bill Cunningham at a campaign event. And when Obama threw his hat into the ring to run for president, he pledged to run “a different kind of campaign” that would transcend the usual “backbiting and tactical” politics that have characterized more recent campaigns for president. But not long after he announced his decision to run, reporters observed that despite the pledge, he had staffed his campaign with a pretty standard supply of insider-type campaign consultants, including practitioners of opposition research.

In effect, opposition researchers are just the types of people Obama was supposed to be running against. In Iowa in February 2007, Politico.com asked Obama why, after all his promises to run an untraditional campaign, he was using opposition researchers. His response said much about the state of politics today. Obama declared that issue-based opposition research was “essential to democracy.” There’s nothing wrong with compiling facts about your opponent’s record — and your own, he said. It’s what you do with the information that matters. Obama said he would take whatever the researchers turned up and intended to use it ethically, “not making ad hominem attacks toward other candidates, … and not suggest that they’ve got untoward motives.”

Four months later Obama found himself in hot water thanks to those very same researchers. Obama staffers had compiled an opposition research memo on Hillary Clinton outlining her connection to Indian companies that performed offshore work for American businesses. The document, with a headline referring to Clinton as the senator from Punjab, was circulated to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis. The headline was a play off a joke Clinton had made at a fundraiser held by Indian-Americans at which she had joked that she could easily win a senate election in Punjab.

But the Clinton campaign got a copy of the memo and made it public, prompting an immediate outcry about Obama’s tactics. The Capital Fax blog dubbed it “a racist, xenophobic hit on Clinton.” Others decried it for perpetuating stereotypes. Obama apologized, blaming his staff, but he nonetheless refused to disavow the practice of researching his opponents.

Opposition research itself dates back at least to our country’s first elections. “Once democracy existed, opposition research came shortly thereafter,” says Chris Lehane, one of the most feared Democrats in the world of opposition research, who worked for both Al Gore and John Kerry in recent presidential elections.

Richard Nixon and his supporters reshaped modern opposition research. In 1971, Ken Khachigian suggested to his superiors in the White House that they develop files of information to reduce the scrambling that happens every time candidates are attacked. Working with the Republican National Committee, researchers tracked every Democratic candidate for the ’72 election and issued weekly reports on each one. The process put the GOP at the forefront of opposition research for decades to come. But when Nixon’s dirty tricks were disclosed, the aftertaste drove opposition research underground for a while.

Opposition research has emerged from the shadows and — thanks to online databases of public records — gotten much more sophisticated. But the basics are timeless.

In the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson supporters combed through Adams’ records and turned up statements showing he favored a “hereditary president” and a Senate with life tenure. They used the statements in pamphlets attacking Adams. Adams’ campaign fought back with accusations that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave mistress, one of the first sex scandals ever uncovered by opposition research.

[Editor’s note: In a June 4, 2008, e-mail to the Center, Tim Griffin said that Monica Goodling was aware of those vote caging allegations because he had “brought them and their falsity” to the attention of the Department of Justice while he was being considered for the U.S. attorney position. Griffin also noted that he has left Mercury Public Affairs and started his own law firm and public affairs company.]