In March 2013, The Washington Post ran a story about the launch of America Rising. The coverage was unusual: opposition-research shops don’t normally seek out attention from major papers; they prefer to operate under the radar. (As a 2000 story in the New York Post put it, “Oppo research is like underwear—it works best when you don’t see it.”) But this new firm, founded by Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, planned on “instigating nothing less than a revolution in the way the right does and uses oppo research,” according toThe Washington Post. Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, told the paper, “Research has been people sitting in a dungeon or going through trash cans and then funneling the information up to a press person.” Miller, by contrast, issues frequent press releases and sometimes even writes op-eds. He speaks like the CEO of a public corporation. “Part of our brand is having credibility with journalists,” he told me.
Oppo shops used to be content with any nasty tidbit that got attention [not really] —for example, the infamous rumor leading up to the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary that John McCain had a black love child. But now, with constant political coverage from online media, random rumors have no staying power. The best dirt has become the kind that can help build a consistent and unappealing image of a candidate, or even an entire party. Oppo researchers today function in ways that make them almost indistinguishable from campaign strategists, just without the funding limits. They can provide one crucial piece of information—say, that John Edwards paid $400 for a haircut—that is subsequently integrated into the broader negative picture of a candidate (in Edwards’s case, that he was rich and vain). Last year, a tracker from America Rising caught Bruce Braley, a Democratic Senate candidate in Iowa, deriding the state’s senior senator, the Republican Chuck Grassley, as a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” This turned into a meme that made Democrats look anti-farmer and alienated from Middle America. For 2016, America Rising is building a huge database of everything Hillary Clinton has said and done, regarding everything from Little Rock to Benghazi, to try to paint a robust caricature of Hillary in the public’s mind before the real Hillary even gets started.
[Barbara] Comstock played a central role in the professionalization of opposition research—essentially ensuring that something like the Clinton wars would never again unfold in quite the same histrionic, gossip-laden way. In 2000, when Comstock was hired by David Israelite to take over the research shop at the Republican National Committee, she replaced most of the existing staff with lawyers and policy experts. “We wanted to develop a research operation that was fact-based and very responsible, so there would be no question about sourcing methods or where a piece of information had come from,” Israelite told me. Comstock wrote papers using open sources and footnotes. But just as important, she used what she found to “connect the dots and create a coherent story about an opposing candidate,” Israelite recalled. For example, Comstock’s team developed the story that Al Gore had been leasing some of his property in Tennessee to a zinc mine that had several times violated Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, adding to an impression of the environmentalist as pious and hypocritical. The new, methodical Barbara Comstock had rendered the old, obsessive model obsolete.