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On July 28, 2016, the final night of the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan took to the stage in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center and delivered a speech that dominated national news in the days that followed. The father of slain Marine captain Humayun Khan’s speech eviscerated Donald Trump for his proposed ban on all Muslim immigrants, and called into direct question the Republican nominee’s commitment and knowledge of the Constitution.
The speech’s memorability and impact even outshone that of Hillary Clinton’s, and led Trump into a weeklong counteroffensive against the Khan family and their legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, stories began surfacing online about Khan’s supposed ties to the Saudi Arabian government, the Muslim Brotherhood, and suggesting his opposition to Trump was based on a profitable scheme to bring Muslim immigrants into the United States.
Even though the stories were overblown and other accusations proved unfounded, the attacks on Khan were vicious and notably quick. One New York City based radio host railed against right-wing media outlets for pursuing and publishing such articles.
Khizr Khan is an example of the dirty underbelly of opposition research, a mechanism designed to undermine a political opponent’s legitimacy based on public information (or, in this case, accusations).
Despite its dirty reputation, however, opposition research isn’t all vitriolic slander aimed at portraying candidates or surrogates in treasonous light. It plays a vital role in accruing information for political debates, informational mailers, and those all-too-familiar campaign advertisements on radio and television.
“Opposition research really refers to due diligence research that a candidate or organization will do on an opponent,” Sonia Van Meter, partner at political research firm Stanford Caskey, tells BTRtoday. “What we do is try to paint a complete picture of someone based on all the public records that are available.”
Stanford Caskey and many other firms conduct their opposition research entirely based on public information—in other words, via documents that are readily available to any citizen through request. That doesn’t exactly shut the door, though; everything from education to tax filings are fair game.
“We will verify employment claims, military service, we’ll check and see if you’re registered to vote, and if you do vote at all,” Van Meter says. “We’ll take a look at personal finance disclosures of candidates running for office, real estate records, business credit records. We’ll go through all kinds of public records that include civil and criminal court records, filings with the secretary of state, whether or not you’ve had federal or state tax liens, even driving records.”
For incumbents or candidates who have previously held public office, previous campaigns, voting records, and especially campaign finance come into play. The idea is not only to create transparency around an opponent, but to use the information available to find vulnerabilities. For that reason, research teams will often first perform research on their own candidate to form a solid campaign base.
“In terms of campaigns, opposition research is all about knowing where you are and figuring out how to draw the greatest contrast between you and your opponent,” Van Meter explains. “Wherever you’re strong, that’s where you want to attack your opponent for being weak. If you don’t have the best stand on a certain issue, you stay away from it, because it’s not going to serve you well.”
There’s no denying that on a certain level opposition research gets dirty. It uncovers information that, while presumably undesirable, may be (and many times is) of note or concern to voters. It’s a process that anyone who dedicates their life to public service is exposed to, even those as seemingly harmless and with as direct a message as Khizr Khan. And it all comes down to one key principle: accountability.
“It’s about knowing who’s delivering the message that you’re getting, and what the motivations are behind these organizations and individuals,” Van Meter says. “I may not necessarily like seeing the father of a fallen veteran attacked, but it makes voters feel more comfortable who’s delivering that message and why.”
A line exists between opposition research firms and private investigators, the latter of which rely primarily on suspicion and accusation to hunt for information rather than typical public channels. However, because of the nature of exposition, those of us simply reading or seeing the information don’t necessarily see which side of the line it comes from. Not all public attacks need to have public records to back them up.
“There are a million ways to attack a hit that doesn’t have a document behind it,” Van Meter says. “It ends up sullying the issue and muddying the waters, and ordinarily it mushrooms into a bigger, much more interesting scandal.”
Van Meter says she advises candidates and clients to hit opponents only with claims substantiated by documents for two reasons: firstly, because those not backed up can create vulnerability to counterattacks. For example, when a news site publishes a story that links Khizr Khan to the Muslim Brotherhood with no evidence other than private documents or hearsay, that site’s motivations and political leanings are immediately questioned.
The second reason? A simple matter of proof.
“If you have documentation, no one can say you’re making things up. No one can say ‘alleged,’” Van Meter says. “There’s a document somewhere that can be produced that says this is true and it’s been verified.”
It’s why campaign advertisements about a candidate’s unsavory voting record hit harder than rumors of alleged infidelity or inappropriate behavior. Even in a campaign season where unsubstantiated claims and accusations seem like the rule rather than the exception, both Clinton and Trump will continue going back to concrete material. Votes, legislation, newspaper quotations, and other public information, no matter how old, will continue to be the crux of opposition research, because no matter how chaotic the election cycle, accountability never goes out of style.