Pounder is the President of Definers Public Affairs and America Rising LLC. He previously served as a Senior Adviser to Marco Rubio's presidential campaign and Research Director of the Republican National Committee.
The 2016 general election is just beginning to take shape, and already political commentators are asking: What new information could possibly come out that would actually change voters’ minds? We think we know Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. These candidates, their lives, their successes, and their controversies—from cattle futures to Atlantic City exploits—have made headlines for decades. But there is still plenty left to come.
In general, through required disclosures, online databases, and public records requests, more information is available about the public and private lives of candidates running for office today than ever before. Ready to comb through all the information and documents are legions of opposition researchers employed by both parties, which have had researchers gearing up for 2016 ever since the last election ended in 2012. Republicans and Democrats each created dedicated outside groups. The GOP’s America Rising, which I run, and the Democrats’ American Bridge have already spent millions looking into Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s pasts. (The Democratic National Committee recently had its own files on Trump hacked.) Both sides are actively touting their efforts. Their war chests are strong.
For those in my field, this is the presidential election of Big Oppo. Massive research files (our Clinton file is over 7,000 pages of distilled research and over 10,000 video clips) are ready to be shared with an American people who, because of social media and the diversification of news platforms, now have an insatiable appetite for more information. With a candidate like Hillary Clinton, we have very long records to search for opportunities. America Rising’s Clinton effort to date has meant an analysis of the public record, compilation of thousands of video clips, numerous state and federal records requests, and trips to more than a dozen states for field research. To win, the real question is where to start.
Opposition research has always been a part of the political process. What’s new is the degree of professionalization on both sides, the transparency in the industry, and now the ability for every American to do it. The best video tracker—those persistent kids who trail candidates with video cameras and have the ability to change the course of an election—could be an everyday citizen in the first row while a candidate shakes hands, who uploaded a video to YouTube or used our organization’s new Grill app. Activists are increasingly doing their own splicing of facts and video together to create new narratives. News organizations are increasingly becoming more about opposition research than reporting.
In this Big Oppo election, a candidate must be prepared. While Clinton and Trump can seem larger than life to most people, for an opposition researcher, their records are no different than any other candidate. Their personal financial disclosures—documents each candidate is required to release—will be scrutinized for how they line up with their stated positions. How they managed their businesses, foundations, and time in government will be analyzed for opportunities. Every on-the-record comment, interview, and speech they ever made has been watched, tagged, and is ready to be exploited should they say one thing today inconsistent with something they said yesterday. For example, Clinton gave a disastrous interview to NPR about her ever-changing position on same-sex marriage, which we were able to exploit it because we already had on file everything she had ever said on the subject. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been forced to reconcile positions on issues like Iraq and Libya with numerous past interviews.
The goals of having all this research are clear: Define your opponent early in voters’ minds; do not let your opponent get his or her message out; dominate the daily news cycle with research-driven rapid response attacks; and set the record straight in defense of your own boss. However, the most important goal is to provide case studies that reinforce the questions voters already have about either candidate’s character. For example, three years ago, America Rising made a clear determination that our research effort would look to drive questions around Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness and honesty. Why? Our research showed that voters really did not like Clinton when she was viewed as a typical, out-of-touch politician. It was critical that we tapped into that inherent belief among voters. What we could not imagine was that Clinton had provided the best example by her own decision to use a home server for classified emails. At the same time, our counterparts at American Bridge and the Clinton campaign are just beginning the process of honing an anti-Trump message and field-testing slogans that might appeal to a wider non-Democrat primary audience.
Not to be forgotten is that Clinton and Trump have been around for so long that much of their older records are not known to newer generations. People are voting today who barely remember Bill Clinton’s impeachment or weren’t tuning into The Apprentice.
How do you take down a presidential candidate? With compelling content the couples a candidate’s positive vision for the future of the country with a clear case for why your opponent can’t take the country forward. Ultimately, to win, a candidate’s message has to simply be better and more compelling than their opponent’s. Each campaign will have to constantly feed out new, negative information. Twitter and Facebook feeds must be fed. News sites must have news. And anchors need breaking scoops, while bloggers must have something to chatter about. And Big Oppo is here for them. There’s no escaping the Big Oppo election.