Planning a political campaign is a complex process that involves many steps. One of the most essential is opposition research, which should be conducted as early and thoroughly as possible.
Often referred to as "oppo research," this is the process of investigating political opponents as part of an overall campaign strategy. Collecting such intel is a critical and frequently debated aspect of election campaigns. Gathering this type of data is a sometimes complicated and multifaceted practice that involves collecting and compiling information about political opponents in order to create a strategic advantage.
But, as with any tool, the ethics surrounding opposition research are paramount. One need only look back in history to the fallout from the Watergate scandal to see how thin the line between ethical oppo research and underhanded behavior can be.
Done right, such research can provide information about your opponent’s background, strategies, policy positions, and other insights that will give you a competitive edge during a political campaign.
Read on as we explore the concept of opposition research, its necessity in modern politics, and best practices for conducting ethical research on your political opponents.
Opposition research is the systematic gathering, analysis, and utilization of information about political opponents. The aim is to uncover a candidate's strengths and weaknesses, past actions, policy positions, personal history, finances, and potential vulnerabilities.
While the practice is often associated with negative campaigning, opposition research serves the broader purpose of ensuring transparency, accountability, and well-informed decision-making by voters. This is especially important when trust in politicians is low and corruption seems at an all-time high.
Basically, opposition research serves four purposes that are critical in the often contentious and competitive world of modern American politics:
Transparency: In a democratic system, voters deserve to know who they are voting for and what their chosen candidates represent. Opposition research helps uncover the truth about candidates, enabling voters to make informed choices.
Accountability: By exposing potential shortcomings or unethical behavior, opposition research can hold candidates accountable for their actions. This pressure encourages politicians to adhere to higher ethical standards.
Strategic Advantage: In a competitive political landscape, gaining a strategic edge over opponents is crucial. Knowledge about your opponent's positions, voting history, and vulnerabilities can help shape a winning campaign strategy.
Protection from Unethical Practices: Oppo research also functions as a safeguard against unethical or illegal activities by opponents, which helps to ensure the integrity of the political process.
In the current information age, there are dozens of ways to gather data. You can scour social media for past comments and posts, hire a PI to gather intel, or compile a dossier on an opponent’s policy and voting history.
However, it's important to vet all information and gather it from reliable sources.
In order to avoid spreading false information, accusations of mudslinging, or blowback that damages your campaign, there are some best practices that will keep you informed about your opponents and allow you to plan your campaign accordingly.
Use publicly available information. Start by gathering information from publicly available sources. This includes voting records, speeches, campaign materials, and statements made by the opposing candidate. Public records like financial disclosures, court records, and news articles are also valuable sources.
Fact-check everything thoroughly. Verify the information you obtain from public sources. Cross-reference facts with multiple credible sources to ensure accuracy. Misinformation or false claims can have serious legal and ethical consequences.
Respect your opponent’s privacy. While it's essential to scrutinize public records and statements, avoid invading the private lives of candidates or their families. Focus on issues of public interest, policy positions, and actions that impact constituents.
Maintain ethical boundaries. Steer clear of illegal or unethical means of obtaining information. Hacking, bribery, or any activities that violate the law or ethical standards should never be employed.
Disclose your sources. In the interest of transparency, campaigns should disclose the sources of their opposition research. Voters have the right to know where the information is coming from and assess its credibility.
Focus on policy differences. One of the ethical aspects of opposition research is to emphasize policy differences rather than initiating personal attacks. Constructive criticism based on policy positions can help create a more informed electorate.
Prioritize fair representation. Present the information you gather in a fair and unbiased manner. Avoid cherry-picking data, doctoring images, or taking quotes out of context. Fair representation fosters trust and credibility.
With all of the expenses involved, independent campaigns often lack the resources to run effectively. That includes finding the funds to conduct thorough — and ethical — research from reputable sources.
Fortunately, there are ways to gather information that are low-cost or free and available to anyone.
For example, financial information about non-profit organizations must be publicly available by law. There are several independent websites and public databases that compile financial data for public and private organizations.
To check on the 990 forms for non-profits, take a look at Charity Navigator or Candid. The public quarterly and yearly earnings of publicly traded corporations can be found at the Securities and Exchange Commission website.
If your opponent owns a private company, you can check the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website for ratings, licensing, past complaints, and other important information. Don’t overlook Yelp reviews and industry registries, databases, and websites.
You can also make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Their website provides information for making such requests and provides links to state databases and other resources.
If you’re searching for information about campaign finance and funding sources, there are several websites you can check out. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) keeps a database of contributions by individual donors. You can also obtain information from among millions of records relating to campaign funding at OpenSecrets.
Most states keep records of contributions to state and local campaigns as well as court, property, tax zoning, and other business records. All it takes is a quick Google search for your state or locality.
An overlooked resource for information about political opponents is their newsletter or email list. By getting a first-hand glimpse of what the opposition is telling their supporters, you can gain a better understanding of their strategy and approach as well as finding out:
What they’re telling voters
Their future plans
Potentially false or damaging information about you or your supporters
Any information collected via these methods and resources will help you to develop strategies and counter-attacks, identify trends, and even uncover potential allies or dubious connections to your competition.
In the interest of being proactive and getting in front of any potential problems in their own campaign, it’s also important for candidates to turn a critical lens on themselves. An essential component of reputation management, self-opposition research allows political candidates to anticipate and address potential vulnerabilities in their own campaign.
In order to be completely transparent and obtain the clearest picture of any dirt someone may dig up about your campaign and associates, use an objective, reputable third-party to conduct the self-research.
You can also just Google yourself. Remember, what’s on the internet often stays forever. You might be surprised to learn that the potentially problematic essay, article, or poem you wrote in high school or college is sitting on a website somewhere.
That contentious post you made on Twitter or Facebook before you even thought about becoming politically active is buried somewhere in your social media feeds. Root it out and get rid of it, but consider that someone, somewhere may have a screenshot or DM you need to explain.
By conducting oppo research on yourself, you can:
Anticipate Attacks: Self-opposition research allows a candidate to anticipate potential attacks from their opponents. That way, you’ll be able to prepare responses and develop strategies to counteract negative campaigning.
Conduct Ethical Self-Examination: Candidates should hold themselves to the same ethical standards they expect from their opponents. Self-opposition research can help identify situations where you might need to address past actions, apologize, or take corrective measures.
Infuse Your Campaign with Honesty and Transparency: Voters appreciate candidates who are open about their flaws and past mistakes. Self-opposition research promotes honesty and transparency, which can build trust with constituents.
Provide a Learning Opportunity: Self-examination provides an opportunity for growth and self-improvement. Candidates can refine their policy positions and better understand their constituents' needs and concerns.
Defend Yourself and Your Positions with Facts: Armed with knowledge of their own past and policy positions, candidates can defend their record with facts and figures. This will harden your campaign and make you less susceptible to misleading or exaggerated attacks.
Incorporating self-opposition research into campaign strategies also sets a positive tone for an election and encourages a focus on the issues that truly matter to voters.
Opposition research is a necessary but sometimes contentious practice. When conducted ethically, it serves as a tool for transparency, accountability, and strategic advantage.
If you care about maintaining the integrity of the political process, it’s essential to adhere to best practices, respect individual privacy, and focus on policy differences rather than personal attacks.
Don’t neglect self-opposition research, a reputation management best practice that promotes honesty, transparency, and preparedness. By engaging in this proactive approach, candidates can anticipate potential attacks, address past issues, and demonstrate their commitment to ethical campaigning.
In the end, ethical opposition research and self analysis are not just about winning elections; they’re about preserving the democratic ideals of transparency, accountability, and informed decision-making for the benefit of the American people.
Opposition research isn’t the only tool you need to run an effective and efficient campaign. Independent candidates need all of the help and support they can get to remain competitive and viable during the election process.
Good Party is proud to provide independents at all levels of aspiration with campaign tools, resources, and support. Good Party Academy will show you step-by-step how to craft an effective campaign from the planning stage and beyond. Once you’re in the race, you can track your campaign with cutting-edge tools like our AI Campaign Manager.
These resources are free and available to all independent, nonpartisan, and third-party candidates who are serious about running for office and winning.