McCarthy said, “Our positives are just as good as our negatives,” and gave as an example a celebrated 2004 ad featuring a young Ohio woman named Ashley Faulkner whose mother died in the 2001 terrorist attacks recounting how then-President George W. Bush comforted her during a campaign visit to Lebanon, Ohio.
Progress for America Voter Fund, an outside group funded by many of the same mega-donors now contributing to American Crossroads, spent $16 million airing “Ashley’s Story” in 10 states, and Bob Shrum, a top consultant to Bush’s Democratic rival John Kerry said it had a major impact.
“’Ashley’ was real, was human, people could relate to it,” he said, adding the ad “probably cost us the presidency.”
But [Professor Michael] Franz [of Bowdoin College], who wrote the 2008 book “Choices and Changes: Interest Groups in the Electoral Process” and co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads, said “Ashley” still managed to incorporate McCarthy’s trademark edge, through her father’s recollection that his wife “was murdered by terrorists on Sept. 11.”
“The Ashley ad is not the typical fluff piece where you’re walking down the street with constituents who are listening to your wisdom,” he said. “It still invokes the scariest event on the homeland in many, many years, so there’s a fear message embedded in it subtly.”
McCarthy is better known “for the biting attack — the kinds that are straight in your face, either using fear messaging or angering messaging,” Franz said, adding that the surge of negative ads by conservative outside groups has enabled Republican candidates to benefit while arguing “my hands are clean from these vicious attacks.”
Meanwhile, the Wesleyan Media Project this week reported that Democratic candidates, who have gotten less help from outside groups, are more likely to air negative ads themselves.
But Franz said McCarthy’s outside group ads often are so negative they can risk “boomeranging” and hurting their intended beneficiary.
“Whether you study it in the lab or whether you study it in the real world, there is a tipping point, which we haven’t been able to locate, but it definitely exists and McCarthy is always treading close to that line,” Franz said. “But he’s famous, so he probably gets a little more leeway in terms of how close he hews to that line.”
The Democratic National Committee formally has asked the Pentagon for reams of correspondence between military agencies and nine potential Republican presidential candidates, a clear indication that Democrats are building opposition-research files on specific 2012 contenders even before the midterm elections.An internal Army e-mail obtained by ABC News indicates that the DNC has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for "any and all records of communication" between Army departments and agencies and each of the nine Republicans -- all of whom are widely mentioned as possible challengers to President Obama.
For starters, the major parties are doing more. John Neumann, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure research unit, said that over the years he’s seen the staff climb from seven to “10 or 11,” and this year they were brought on board earlier in the election cycle.
The Democratic side has shown similar growth. Spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had 10 researchers on staff in 2006; now it has 16.
But practitioners say much of the growth has occurred outside the political parties, with private consultants feeding off the explosion of independent expenditures and nonprofit political organizations that are now allowed to accept direct corporate and union donations.
“After the 2008 election, there was definitely an uptick in people who were out there offering [research] services,” said Kevin Wright, founder and director of the Old Dominion Research Group, a Republican research firm. “A lot of people on the GOP side who were out of a job ... were forced into the position of having to make a living for themselves.”
The Internet has also contributed to the industry’s growth, Neumann said. “You have these campaigns that are not necessarily using sophisticated opposition research techniques, but you are definitely seeing them doing some research.”
Neumann added that “more amateurs are doing it ... people’s ability to use Google makes everyone automatically an opposition researcher. You don’t let your sister go out on a date without doing a basic background search on the guy.”
But opposition research has also become a more integral part of campaigns at all levels, said Tiffany Muller, research director at the Democratic firm Hamilton Campaigns. “Opposition and self-research was utilized fairly well by large campaigns [in prior years] but it was also one of those things that campaigns were willing to cut out of their budget ... they would have volunteers doing it,” she said. Now, “we are getting more and more calls from people who are running for city council or are running for mayor or are not in competitive house races ... people are seeing the value of it more.”