Politics & Society

What Is Opposition Research? Understanding the Tactics Used by Political Campaigns to Conduct and Use Opposition Research

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 3 min read

Opposition research is one of the most important parts of running a political campaign. Whether you’re using it to highlight your opponent’s ideological inconsistencies or reveal a more salacious personal indiscretion, conducting thorough opposition research is necessary to running a competitive campaign.


What Is Opposition Research?

Opposition research is the collection and analysis of information about an opponent. “Oppo research” or just “oppo” (as it’s known amongst political campaign staff and opposition researchers) can take many different forms. Sometimes opposition research is based on a candidate’s past policy missteps. Other times it can be made up of personal indiscretions. What all opposition research has in common, is that it is information specifically obtained to enhance a candidate’s understanding of their opponent’s weaknesses.

History of Opposition Research

American politics is often referred to as a full contact sport, but one where rumors, insinuation, and backstabbing form the game. Opposition research is one tactic used by political campaigns, but one that didn’t come to prominence until the latter half of the twentieth century.

One of the most infamous examples of opposition research came during the Nixon administration. Before occupying the White House, Richard Nixon was a popular GOP senator representing California and vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During Nixon’s second term in office, he found himself on the verge of impeachment thanks to the cover-up surrounding the break in by the Republican Party to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel for the purposes of conducting opposition research.

Since Watergate, political opposition research has moved from the back alleyways and fringes of politics to become a more widely accepted and organized form of campaigning.

Who Collects Opposition Research?

Campaigns have many different personnel they employ to collect opposition research. Sometimes oppo is handled in house, other times its outsourced to third party researchers. Some of the most popular sources for campaign opposition research include:

  • Opposition research firm: In the latter half of the twentieth century, research firms specializing in political opposition research started to spring up in and around Washington, D.C. Opposition research firms employ a wide array of professional researchers, many of whom are former journalists, researchers, and campaign workers.
  • Private investigators: Sometimes campaigns will turn directly to private investigators to conduct opposition research instead of relying on full opposition research firms. Private investigators are especially useful for smaller campaigns that don’t have the funds to commission a major opposition research firm.
  • Whistleblowers: Sometimes election campaigns are gifted opposition research by whistleblowers who are unaffiliated with the campaign. Whistleblowers are sometimes politically motivated to provide damning information about a politician they oppose. Other times whistleblowers are motivated to turn in opposition research for personal reasons.

Different Methods of Opposition Research

Over the years, campaigns have developed a variety of methods of conducting opposition research. Choosing the best method depends on what type of information you’re hoping to uncover. Opposition research might include:

  • Checking the veracity of a candidate’s personal story or biography.
  • Combing through the social media accounts of opposing candidates.
  • Talking to past colleagues or employers.
  • Inspecting the candidate’s voting record and tax records.

How Is Opposition Research Used by Campaigns?

There are a number of ways that opposition research can be used by a political campaign. The number one goal is to get the research out into the open where it can shape public opinion and media coverage. Prior to sharing information collected about an opponent, a campaign must run the idea—the tenor, timing, and content of attack and contrasting messaging—through the filter of the central argument of the campaign to ensure alignment and consistency with that argument and the campaign’s core message.

Learn more about political campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.