Update: also check out a 2019 digital oppo piece discussing online public records like voter registration, lawsuits, tax payments and driving history.
New guest article! Ben Donahower is an experienced campaign operative who runs Campaign Trail Yard Signs. No stranger to our esteemed pages, Ben wrote about QR codes in politics last August. Below, he heads to The Dark Side to examine some online tools for opposition research.
Online Tools for Opposition Research
Perhaps you think about opposition as a dark art where ruthless operatives find skeletons in a candidate’s closet. Or, maybe you picture a hapless intern poring over mountains of papers at the county courthouse. While there is some truth in both of these stereotypes, these days a lot of opposition research happens online. Many of the best tools are household names, but opposition researchers leverage them to reveal information that can change the course of a campaign. Buckle up!
Using advanced search operators, researchers get the most relevant search results unlocking a treasure trove of political intelligence. You can also get to many of the advanced search options by clicking on the options drop down on the top right of the search results page and choosing “advanced search.”
If you’re interested in a walkthrough of some of the ways that you can use Google search and docs to research a candidate’s background and pull voting records, check out the opposition research guide (self-aggrandizement alert, I wrote it) below:
As an example of what you can do, try some of these plug and chug searches, and you’ll get search results that you just can’t find by merely typing a phrase in Google:
- “candidate name” site:gov — will return only sites with gov in the web address, so you might get anything from minutes from a meeting at city hall to criminal records.
- Site:thecandidateswebsite.com — will return all pages that Google knows about on the site. It might be a little tedious to go through them all if it’s a robust site, but I’ve seen more than one campaign put sensitive information, spreadsheets, and other internal information on their website without telling search engines not to index that content.
- campaign issue/company/etc intitle:”candidate name” — will return pages where the particular issue is a part of the article and the title of the page has the candidate’s name in it. If the candidate has a history public service, you can compare these results to what the candidate is saying on the campaign trail for inconsistencies.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. You can check out the rest of the advanced search operators here, learn their function, and apply them to research candidates.
This may come as a surprise, but some people, candidates included, say stupid things on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. In fact, the Sunlight Foundation recently launched Politwoops that lists tweets that national political figures sent but quickly deleted. Most of them are harmless, but a few tweets are worth both a facepalm and a note in your candidate- and opposition-research dossier. Check out your own candidate and opponent’s social network profiles and updates to identify strengths, weaknesses, and a good quote or two.
Social networks are also a great place to mine for known associates with bad reputations. Take a look at the candidate’s connections on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest and see if there is anything in their past that you can connect the candidate to. It saves a lot of time if you have someone who has the local knowledge to eliminate people and target others quickly along with a spare intern to search names online.
Campaign Finance Reports Online
Campaign finance data has obvious value to campaigns, and is the source of the some of the most memorable opposition research. During the 2008 presidential primary, for example, the Obama for President campaign revealed that John Edwards paid $400 for a haircut. This gem of opposition research is still around today; with Edwards again in the news, perhaps you’ve even heard it in the last couple of weeks like I did.
To get campaign finance data online, check out these resources:
- Federal Election Commission
- Open Secrets
- Pro Publica
- NY Times Campaign Finance API
- Campaign Finance Report Information
Opposition Research in Real Time
More and more opposition research is not only about understanding a candidate’s past but also what the candidate is doing and saying right now. Trackers have long videotaped candidates at public events, but these days, perhaps more importantly, even the smallest gaffe seems to get recorded on a smartphone and uploaded to YouTube within minutes of the candidate’s misstep.
Real-time opposition research is most powerful when it’s embedded within a narrative about the opposing candidate — basically, when it reinforces what you’ve been saying about the other guy all along, a message that derives from the opposition research that’s gathered using these online tools and otherwise. These online tools and a mountain of others help political intelligence professionals frame the issues and keep candidates accountable.