In the pre-Internet era, opposition research was laborious work. Digging up tax liens, civil lawsuits, divorce petitions, and other potentially damaging documents took days or weeks; now they often can be discovered with a few keystrokes on LexisNexis and other databases.
“I’ve been in steamy country courthouses in southern Alabama in the middle of summer,” says GW’s Dennis Johnson, who in his spare time runs CongressionalBadboys.com, a bipartisan look at congressional scandals, corruption, and malfeasance. Now, he says, what used to take weeks and months to research is often available online in minutes.
But sometimes the juiciest documents aren’t available on the Internet. The 2009 campaign of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell had to endure weeks of scrutiny after the Washington Post reported on his two-decades-old master’s thesis at Regent University, in which he outlined his conservative social views and spelled out how they should be incorporated into GOP governance. Somebody knew about that document and likely tipped off the reporter, who looked up the 93-page document, says Zilliox, the private investigator.
“You can know everything there is to know about the ‘intertubes,’ ” observes Eustance. “But if you don’t know how to use a microfilm machine or walk into a county courthouse in East Sweet Nowhere, USA, and find old trial records and tax liens, you shouldn’t be doing oppo, period.”
Mark also offers a caution that applies even to college students:
And social-media users who might someday be interested in running for office could unwittingly be helping future opponents.
“You’ll find that Facebook and Twitter are feeding the opposition-research files,” says Tyler Harber, a GOP consultant. “A lot of people who will run for office in the next five or ten years are using these tools—and it could come back to bite them.”