How Democrats are preparing for the Republican primary
Two of the party’s top opposition researchers share how they dig up and distribute dirt
Welcome to Campaigner, a newsletter Q&A series highlighting the tactics behind political campaigns and the players pushing the buttons. Produced in collaboration with Arena & FWIW.
With more than a handful of Republicans gearing up to run for president in 2024, Democrats will have a tremendous opportunity to educate the American people on their bios, backgrounds, and policy positions online and in the press. A lot of that responsibility falls on opposition researchers - staffers whose job involves digging through public records, tracking footage, and old press clips in order to build narratives in the press.
For this issue of Campaigner, we spoke with Liz Charboneau, VP of Research at American Bridge, and Rahul Chopra, who led research on Mark Kelly’s successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2022.
Kyle Tharp, Campaigner: Research on the left is done by a bunch of entities - from the campaigns themselves to outside organizations and the party committees. What does a researcher on the “hard side” of a campaign do, vs. working for a party committee or independent expenditure group?
Rahul Chopra: The word ‘research’ in campaigns can tend to mean a lot of different things - the type of research that I've been doing is opposition research… It involves a lot of public records research and fact-finding and digging to build narratives and help inform strategic comms on candidates you’re working for and also on opponents.
When you're working for a candidate, you are doing research on them to make sure that you know what their vulnerabilities are, and you're also making sure that you have a handle on what their opponents are doing and what they're interested in as well. Specifically, on a Senate campaign, the work tends to be a lot of digging into particular aspects of your opponent’s and candidate's record. In contrast, the research work at party committees is a lot more about breadth than depth. In those cases, you have a lot of targets, and you want to be nimble and prioritized and really be strategic with how you spend your time. Research can really be the difference in a lot of close races, especially with candidates who have not spent a lot of time in the public eye and who haven't really been vetted comprehensively.
Kyle Tharp, Campaigner: What are some of the go-to sources of information and resources that oppo researchers rely on?
Liz Charboneau: When we get a target, our first thing to do is to look at the bio that they're giving us. It gives you a starting point for who this person is and what they want voters to focus on about them as well. From there, you work to almost verify what they're saying is true, and you can build proving points that either that they're lying about their bio or that they are telling the truth. Then, we look further into places they've worked, offices they've held before, where they're from, where they went to school, and all that stuff. That gives you a building block of where you're going to look for more information.
A lot of the secondary verification comes from public records - property records, financial disclosures, and campaign finance records. If they run businesses, it's with the SEC and any of those agencies that regulate businesses or at the state level, the same kind of thing. From there, you can start digging in even further.
Rahul Chopra: In terms of actual tools for doing research analysis, having a LexisNexis subscription to look at public records is indispensable. It's also a really good place to start if you're doing news searches because you can search by keywords, you can search by publication, you can search by time period, and so really being targeted in your searches is an important way of saving time and also just making sure that you're not missing anything – you're being as specific as you can.
The good thing about researching people who are running for public office is that they’re required to submit a variety of disclosures - whether that's a yearly personal financial disclosure or quarterly FEC reports. Those are great places to start when you're looking into people. I think also PFDs (personal financial disclosures) are a good way to look into the accumulation of wealth and also where a candidate’s wealth is coming from. Usually, they're filled out in a pretty sloppy way or in a way that tends to give away the ball in ways that the campaigns and candidates probably didn't intend to. FEC reports are kind of the same way - you can often find people who've taken money from bad actors or in excess of the legal limit and those are good ways to drum up some coverage and also build narratives. There are a lot of would-be politicians who've been derailed by due diligence things.
Kyle Tharp, Campaigner: Once you find something noteworthy, what are some of the best ways for distributing your research? How do you decide between publicly releasing research yourself vs. discretely pitching it for reporters to use?
Liz Charboneau: The first thing to consider is what kind of medium is the research for - is it written content or audio or video? My organization is extremely focused on tracking footage and audio, and I think that is one of our biggest value ads to the campaign ecosystem. We have to consider where it would be most useful – if people need to see it or if they'd rather read it – and then I think if it's something that should be seen or heard, a lot of the time putting it out in the digital space [like Twitter] makes a lot more sense and it can be shared widely.
If there is something that's written (think about George Santos for a minute) and there’s so much information and you need to see the pattern of the lies, it makes more sense to work with a reporter to get that information out. Whether we publicly have our name associated with it as a source or not is mostly up to our communications team, as well as the reporters that they're working with to pitch a story. Reporters don’t want to be accused of being partisan hacks, so they're often likely to keep our name out of a story and we are totally fine with that. If it's something that we have exclusive video or audio for, we’ll have our name associated with it because the press needs to explain how they got the footage.
Rahul Chopra: I think the conversation wouldn't be complete without noting the really important partnership between research and communications teams. Research supplies a lot of the materials, and then we work with comms to help make sure that it's in line with our messaging.
One thing I would say about the 24/7 news cycle and inundation of news and information post-Trump is that there's a believability gap for a lot of things that politicians say. That’s why finding video is so important. On the Kelly campaign, we had a lot of video clips of Blake Masters saying all kinds of different things, and a lot of those were from the GOP primary when he needed to run as far to the right as possible. We used those to great effect in the general election in putting up ads and showing him in his own words.
I think that a lot of the strategic research and communications work for campaigns tends to be a combination of (1) getting reporters to write about things (2) amplifying it from your side, and (3) ultimately having a paid media narrative to drive the conversation with voters at all levels.
Kyle Tharp, Campaigner: Let’s talk specifically about the 2024 presidential campaign. There are going to be more than a half dozen Republicans running for president, and it presents a whole lot of opportunity for Democratic researchers. What are some of those opportunities?
Liz Charboneau: I think we have a great opportunity to define a lot of these people who are going to run on the Republican side even if they're already well-known politicians. Ron Desantis and Nikki Haley, for example, are known entities - but they are known entities inside a small circle. The general public doesn't know what Nikki Haley was doing as Governor of South Carolina, and the general public is just now starting to see DeSantis coverage but maybe hadn’t been paying attention earlier when he first ran.
We have a lot to work with in their public record as well as their background because reporting from when they were running at the state level doesn’t really spread the way that something in a presidential election does. The same reporters who are interested in a gubernatorial candidate, especially way back when Nikki Haley was running are completely different from the reporters that are interested now in the same kind of information. We’re able to define them for a national audience in a way that nobody ever has before.
For candidates like Haley and DeSantis, when you run at the statewide level, a lot of the times you're tailoring your policies to what is popular only in that state and for your voters in that state, and that can really come back to bite you on the national level because what is good for your state or what is popular in your state is almost never popular totally nationally.
With Donald Trump on the other hand, it's more about cutting through the noise of the chaos that was his presidency. I was following his presidency closely every day for four years and I can't remember all of it. It’s impossible to ask the general public to remember it all, so we have the same opportunity to remind people of what exactly it was like living through the Trump years.
Rahul Chopra: I don't think you can talk about the 2024 election without talking about Trump. He’s an opposition research gold mine - between the lawsuits, the political activity – I mean, he's been running for re-election essentially since he moved into the White House in 2017. There’s a really good opportunity to continue building these narratives on him and holding his campaign's feet to the fire.
I think for some of the other candidates – whether they worked in his administration like Nikki Haley or other folks like Tim Scott who were in Congress pushing the Trump agenda – any “breaks” with Trump are really important to note. Did these people carry water for Trump, even after he lost the election in 2020? Were these people saying things or doing things while Trump was in office to push back on him? Votes and quotes. It’s really important just to know where people line up on that, and find any daylight between him and the other candidates.
Kyle Tharp, Campaigner: Is there anything else we should mention, or other things that you think aspiring researchers should know?
Liz Charboneau: I think the biggest thing when you're approaching oppo on any candidate is to never take their word for it. I think that's part of the lesson of George Santos, but also something that we've seen across the board. In every election, just because they come out and say something - whether it's something they support, whether it's something they've done, something about their background - where the good oppo comes from is proving them wrong and proving that the narrative they are trying to push to voters is not always true.
Rahul Chopra: I think researchers are some of the unsung heroes of campaigns. I didn't even really know that research was a thing until I started working in this field. You really get to work on things that affect all facets of a campaign, whether it's due diligence work or vetting, or making sure that things the campaign puts out are accurate and faithful. It’s so integral to campaigns generally and to the greater mission of winning elections.
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These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media