Business, Politics & Society

Researching Your Opponent

David Axelrod and Karl Rove

Lesson time 9:49 min

Karl delves into the whys and hows of conducting opposition research, and addresses the ethical concerns of this practice.

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David Axelrod and Karl Rove
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If you're in a big campaign, like president or senator or governor, you're going to in all likelihood hire a firm that specializes in this. But if you're involved in a lesser campaign, you still need to do opposition research. You need to approach this by looking at the public records and public statements and public actions of your opponent, and in all ways. I mean, have they held elective office before? Are they-- have they sought office before? Collect all that they have said during those times. There are public records about, you know, have they paid their taxes, do they have liens on their property, have they owned a small business. You know, what claims have they made about themselves? You'll be surprised if you do this. This is public records, and so you're not-- you know, you're not hiring a private investigator to search into their personal activities. But you are looking at what they've said on a public level and trying to get a sense of what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses, what do they believe, how do they think, and what do they say. And in all of those things, are their weaknesses? And are their strengths? Are there things that they are going to emphasize that are going to be of advantage to them? And are there things that they say and do that could be of advantage to you? Let me give you one weird example. We were running a campaign for the Texas Railroad Commission. Now, that may sound like it's sort of hokey. It's the worst-named government body in America. It actually regulates the Texas oil and gas industry. Three-member commission, elected statewide. So it's powerful because the oil and gas industry is big in Texas. A vacancy came open on it, and the governor of Texas, Ann Richards, appointed a young protégé, a Democrat state representative from Austin named Lena Guerrero. And she was impressive-- smart, able, a rise-and-comer. She could be a statewide candidate, and she was clearly being groomed by Ann Richards. And over the course of the campaign, we did our opposition research at the start of the campaign. We began noticing that in different places, at different times, she claimed to have had a different major at the University of Texas. In one place she was a journalism major. In another one she was a political science major. Another one, she was a government major. And she kept claiming different majors in different places. So we sort of went to say, what was her major? Why does she say different things in different places? Well, come to find out, she never graduated. And yet she had given two commencement addresses, one at Texas State University and one at Texas A&M, in which she referenced her own college graduation. In fact, at A&M she said, I remember well my own commencement, and she claimed in these articles to have been a graduate of the University of Texas with these various majors. Well, when this emerged in the ca-- in the campaign, I mean she was basically dumbing ...


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excellent content and definitely great presentation. i loved every section and i believe that their advice, however designed for politics, it holds valuable to many more aspects of our life, personal or professional. thanks for the time and energy!

Extremely informative. Every citizen.voter should take this course.

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Comments

Allison F.

Mavericks who could push well-needed change could be stymied by being raked over the coals with public records. None of us has a perfect clean slate. Many people deserve a second chance. I am not talking about lying, however. Opposition research can take out potential leaders, however, that have much to offer the American people.

A fellow student

I think that, sometimes, better than researching the opponent, the release date and the fashion in which things get published are more important. The video was definitely more appealing with the veterans and if this was released too early in the campaign, this plan could have foiled - either giving the other party enough time to respond or by playing to the short term memory of voters..

Falon L.

I wish the lesson was more focused on practical ways of conducting opposition research.

Steven W.

I find the swift boat ad example interesting here. It's presented as "well, this is what he said, so we used it". That's true as far as it goes. But at a deeper level, those statements came from John Kerry's statements before the senate which played a part in ending the Vietnam War. The statements were undoubtedly true - some of those acts were indeed committed and the fact that this was happening was of enourmous importance. Obviously they hurt people also, but one could argue it took bravery to take the stand John Kerrie took. As such the ad takes John Kerrie's statements out of context. I'd argue that borderline in terms of ethics. Now, probably the Kerry campaign should have been ready for that and handled it better. But still, there are layers to ethics - this smacks a little of following the letter of the law but not the spirit. Interesting though :-)

Thomas L.

What I liked about this lesson was the ability to spark a discussion. Interestingly, most of us here seem to be most interested in KR definition of ethics and research into opposition. As with any ethics question, it's not a question anybody, even a seasoned pro, can answer for you. It has sparked a good conversation though. What does crossing the line look like in the digital age? What's fair game vs. out of bounds? Looking forward to seeing the community's thoughts!

Mia S.

R: "So yes, there ought to be ethical limits on how you collect the information. I don't think today as many people are going over too over the line on opposition research in collecting the information - because now, the media, social media, way that we exchange information; being able to quote 'Google something,' means that it's a lot easier to collect this information and find it in a public source. People are not relying on nefarious means to collect it as much. Some people have a concern that you go over the line in your opposition research and that that's expressed in your attacks. The best attacks are attacks that people look at and say,'Boy, that's big,' without you having to say, 'It's big.' One of the big examples to my mind is in 2004, the ad that went after John Kerry from the Swift Boat. The ad was John Kerry on camera for like 27 seconds, saying that his comrades-in-arms in Vietnam had, quote, 'raped and pillaged in a manner reminiscent of Genghis Khan.' So it was his words. And then the rest of the 60-second ad were other veterans saying,'I'm offended by this; we didn't behave like barbarians. We didn't rape and pillage.' The ad - if it had only been 30 seconds of John Kerry saying, 'My fellow veterans are war criminals' would have been powerful enough - it added to it to have actual war veterans appear on camera and dispute his words,but it was the reality of what he had said and done Too often, people just sort of grab something that they find in opposition research, pump it up with a bunch of air, add a bunch of adjectives that say bad things, and throw it out there. Then when they get surprised when people say, 'Well, you know what, that was either unfair or really irrelevant or that was over the top and I'm going to discard most or all of what you've just now told me."

Mia S.

R: "You're going to have somebody in the campaign who's going to be monitoring the opposition, and they're going to have somebody who's monitoring you, and again, look for opportunities,and look for persistent patterns. If somebody says something, occasionally... George Allen, senator from Virginia, he had a tracker - a Democrat operative - following him around who was from southeast Asian heritage. He called him 'Macaca.' It blew up, but that's rare that one moment blows up. Mitt Romney talked about how 47% of the electorate wasn't going to vote for him because they were dependent on government assistance. Well, that - not true - but he said it persistently, and finally somebody caught it on tape. You've got to have somebody to monitor what your opponent is saying, recognizing they're doing it to you; that's why campaign managers and campaign advisers ought to be careful about if their candidate says something sort of off the wall once and doesn't get caught, don't consider that just lucky - go to them and say, 'I don't think you ought to say that again.' The ethical considerations have less to do with the information that's collected than the manner in which they're collected. If it's a matter of public record - for example, if you search in public records and you find that your opponent is guilty - was charged with domestic violence and a restraining order was issued on them - as long as it's collected through public means, that's fair game. But yes, there are ethics - the idea of impersonating people in order to gain information about an opponent... We had a race in Alabama in which they attacked viciously a Republican candidate for the Alabama Supreme Court. He had had a divorce 20 years before,and one of the things that the opposition did was have somebody impersonating somebody else call his daughter from his first marriage in order to collect bad information about him. Well, it blew up in their face - they ran a TV ad in the final week of the campaign, smearing him over this divorce. And what happened? His daughter and a son from his first marriage showed up at a news conference with his current wife and his children heralding what a good man he was, reading a letter from his former wife about what a fine person he was and how he'd make a great justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, and it blew up. And one of the reasons it blew up was that the daughter was able to sit there in front of the camera and tell the voters of Alabama that somebody impersonating somebody else had called her, soliciting bad information on behalf of the Democratic campaign for the Supreme Court."

Mia S.

R: "If you're in a big campaign like president or senator or governor, you're going to in all likelihood hire a firm that specializes in this. But if you're involved in a lesser campaign, you still need to do opposition research. You need to approach this by looking at the public records, public statements, and public actions of your opponent, and in all ways. Have they held elective office before? Have they sought office before? Collect all that they have said during those times. There are public records about, 'Have they paid their taxes?' 'Do they hair liens on their property?' 'Have they owned a small business?' 'What claims have they made about themselves?' You'll be surprised if you do this; this is public records, and so you're not hiring a private investigator to search into their personal activities, but you are looking at what they've said on a public level and trying to get a sense of, what are their strengths, weaknesses? What do they believe? How do they think, and what do they say - and in all of those things, are there weaknesses? And are there strengths? Are there things that they are going to emphasize that are going to be of advantage to them, and are there things that they say and do that could be of advantage to you? Let me give you one weird example: We were running a campaign for the Texas Railroad Commission. Now, that made it sound like it's sort of hokey; it's the worst-named government body in America. It actually regulates the Texas oil and gas industry; three-member commission, elected statewide. So it's powerful because the oil and gas industry is big in Texas. A vacancy came open on it, and the governor of Texas, Ann Richards, appointed a young protege - a Democrat state representative from Austin named Lena Guerrero. And she was impressive - smart, able, a rise-and-comer; she could be a statewide candidate, and she was clearly being groomed by Ann Richards. And over the course of the campaign, we did our opposition research at the start of the campaign, we began noticing that in different places, at different times, she claimed to have had a different major at the University of Texas - in one place she was a journalism major, in another one she was a political science major, government major, and she kept claiming different majors in different places. So we sort of went to say, 'What was her major?' Well, come to find out, she never graduated,and yet she had given two commencement addresses, one at Texas SU, the other at Texas A&M, in which she referenced her own college graduation. In fact, at A&M she said, 'I remember well my own commencement,' and she claimed in these articles to have been a graduate. When this emerged in the campaign, she was basically dumbing up her resume - claiming something she didn't have. She had never gotten her degree - nothing wrong with that, but if you've gotten active in politics, don't claim to be a college graduate if you aren't. And it blew up, and this once-rising star was defeated in the general election by my client, a Republican oil and gas attorney, and her career was effectively ended. So opposition research is really important to do."

Sue B.

The point of this lesson was Researching Your Opponent, not Ethics 101. I am probable a little older than most of you and have seen and remember many campaigns that have gone down as dirty politics. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of looking for dirt and weaponizing it. Listening to what the opponent is saying and more importantly, has said in the past and whether they sync up is a serious strategy. I thought this lesson was thought provoking and most of the comments were contributory to the further understanding of this subject. It is probably too much to ask to keep your own political ideologies under restraint and use this forum as a learning and profitable experience. The use of social media has become a particularly useful method of divining the true intentions and leanings of the opposition but also consider the source. It is so easy to simply accept something that agrees with your own opinion that there is a danger of acting on faulty or misleading information. The swiftboat ads were effective and had enough truth in them to touch the electorate and influence their votes. Was it a low blow, yes, but Carey was also attacking the military that many had served honorably in and they truly did nothing wrong. The bad deeds were done, but not by everyone who was there. So you have some truth, mixed in with emotion and poetic license.

Nancy G.

I wish there had been more discussion on the ethics of opposition research in the era of social media. Does following an opponent on Twitter and reading all their tweets from before they were a public figure constitute impersonating someone? Do we now assume that anything an everything ever posted to any form of social media or screenshot and posted by someone else is fair game? What about metadata?