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The limits of oppo

Monday, Feb 4, 2019

* Lots of people have wondered aloud why opposition researchers never found Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s racist yearbook photos. Chicago-based Democratic opposition researcher Will Caskey offers some insights in Campaigns & Elections. His conclusion

The price most (Democratic) statewide campaigns will pay for an opposition research report comes to about $10,000-$12,000 (less for down-ballot statewides). At that rate, an opposition researcher can spend about five weeks per report. The more time we spend on one report, the less time we have for new clients and more money. Firms who hire staff don’t have it much better, and in some cases, they have it worse: they have to pay for staff regardless of whether their clients are paying their bills.

The reality is that it takes a lot more time than five weeks to look at more obscure records like yearbooks, student newspapers, multiple courthouses, and microfilm.

In case you think my clients would be shocked to see this: no, they love it. Most of my clients actually ask me to look at fewer things in exchange for a lower fee. And they may be right: just because I look at more things doesn’t mean I’ll find better attacks. Either way, as media budgets rise, research budgets fall, and as research budgets fall, total information gathered falls as well.

So if you’re a candidate looking to avoid becoming the next Ralph Northam, don’t ask what your opposition researcher has found. Ask yourself if you’ve paid your researcher enough to find everything you need.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

27 Comments »
  1. - OneMan - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:09 pm:

    Who knew Medical School yearbooks were even a thing?


  2. - The Real Captain - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:09 pm:

    As a former Opp Researcher I totally agree. It is almost impossible to make a living in that field even though it can be one of the most important expenses a candidate can have.


  3. - Dome Gnome - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:10 pm:

    Will Caskey always gives us the hard truths.


  4. - Ron Burgundy - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:14 pm:

    In the Northam case clearly this was missed by many campaigns over the years, both his opponents and presumably his own. When doing preventative research on your candidate, the most basic thing you need is your candidate to be, ahem, candid. They need to be honest and lay out every potential issue. “I was given a nickname in high school that was racist,” etc. I think in this case Northam did know about the yearbook page, as the evidence seems to show that the students chose the layout of the page.


  5. - Jocko - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:26 pm:

    Northam didn’t do himself any favors by his apology/denial, combined with his Michael Jackson impersonation. I did a lot of dumb things at 25, but wearing blackface wasn’t one of them.


  6. - Anon - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:38 pm:

    As a former oppo research consultant, this is one of the most uninformed opinions I have ever seen. First, the “basics” of any opposition research project should ALWAYS include a trip that includes looking at old yearbooks because, guess what, you can usually find embarrassing things in them - not pictures like this but something. And if the campaign won’t pay a consultant to do that work then the consultant needs to make sure that someone on the campaign does it. Second, it took all of 5 minutes to find out that the Northam campaign paid over $50,000 to an opposition research consultant so it wasn’t a lack of funds that made them miss this. Third, and most importantly, every competitive gubernatorial campaign in the country has multiple full-time researchers on staff whose job it is to do what the consultants don’t have time for, like microfilm or finding a yearbook.

    The answer here is that dozens of people simply didn’t think a medical school would have a yearbook so no one ever thought to look for it. It wasn’t a lack of money that caused the Northam, Perriello, and Gillespie campaigns, as well as the dozens of reporters covering the Virginia governor’s race, to miss this, it was a lack of creative thinking about what could exist. OneMan had it right when he said “who knew medical school yearbooks were even a thing?”


  7. - lakeside - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:39 pm:

    It’s complete campaign malpractice that the candidate didn’t flag the yearbooks for his campaign staff. We say this all the time, but know your own oppo. Unfortunately for Northam, this is even more damaging because it indicates that he didn’t think that blackface/Klan outfit and a HS nickname I won’t type here would be a problem for him, which also means it was… definitely him.

    Imagine if you opened your yearbook and someone had made a mistake and put a picture of a dude in blackface and someone dressed like the Klan on your page. I *think* you’d remember. And you’d certainly alert your comms team that this horrible think that you definitely didn’t do was out there.

    No oppo researcher can save you from a candidate that’s either too racist, embarrassed or oblivious to take the steps to save themselves ahead of time.


  8. - VanillaMan - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:42 pm:

    You don’t forget a guy who thinks wearing blackface is funny enough to actually do it. Repeatedly. You don’t trust a guy who can do that. He doesn’t tell anyone because until this week, he was OK with it.

    He wasn’t exposed because he is a Democrat. Their bias blinded them.


  9. - lakeside - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:42 pm:

    Anon - I would say Ralph Northam, the man who provided the photos and a quote for his medical school yearbook knew they were a thing. Which is why he’s the problem in every aspect of this dumpster fire.


  10. - 47th Ward - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:46 pm:

    ===He wasn’t exposed because he is a Democrat. Their bias blinded them.===

    Wait, what? You want to clarify that VMan?


  11. - Willie Talos - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 2:57 pm:

    Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.


  12. - VanillaMan - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:04 pm:

    ==Wait, what?==
    You missed this even after it is pointed out?


  13. - 47th Ward - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:09 pm:

    ===You missed this even after it is pointed out?===

    Do me a solid, please, and point it out again. It’s Monday and I must be dense. Which Democrats knew about this photo but gave Northam a pass because he’s a Democrat and we’re blinded by our bias?


  14. - Duopoly - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:15 pm:

    =He wasn’t exposed because he is a Democrat. Their bias blinded them.=
    Northam can still make this whole thing go away by switching parties to GOP.


  15. - 47th Ward - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:16 pm:

    ===Northam can still make this whole thing go away by switching parties to GOP.===

    It worked for Reagan.


  16. - Blue Dog Dem - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:32 pm:

    In Illinois, it shouldnt be neccessary to go very far back in oppo research. We are a state that believes in the spirit of forgiveness. We believe in the spirit of second chances. And we believe in the spirit of “he without sin among you,let him first cast a stone at her”.


  17. - Responsa - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:34 pm:

    There were at least two sets of oppo teams who did not do their jobs on Northam’s candidacy– both Northam’s own, and his opponent’s oppo team who would have been supposed to dig up any available dirt on Northam during the gubernatorial race. It’s very bizarre and being cheap does not fully explain it.


  18. - dbk - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 3:35 pm:

    Yeah, Northam knew about it, and it was his and his political team’s responsibility to get out in front of it years ago.

    The fact that oppo research hadn’t caught it is irrelevant.


  19. - OneMan - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 4:11 pm:

    == OneMan had it right ==

    Perhaps the wisest thing that was ever written here…


  20. - SaulGoodman - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 4:14 pm:

    **Second, it took all of 5 minutes to find out that the Northam campaign paid over $50,000 to an opposition research consultant so it wasn’t a lack of funds that made them miss this. **

    For a smart former opposition research, you sure do miss the whole point.

    Who said Northam missed it? Who knows if they missed it. What we DO know is that Northam’s OPPOSITION missed it.


  21. - Anonymous - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 4:37 pm:

    I work for a medical school and we don’t have yearbooks. We do a composite photo of each graduating class, and I guess websites now, but that’s it.


  22. - Matt Vernau - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 5:01 pm:

    Political sub types take the current process way to seriously. The Governor of Virginia should offer to resign if everyone arguing for that resignation will admit to their own short comings and resign in kind. The remaining election officials (if any0 can replace them all by throwing darts at the voter rolls. Virginia will still have flawed leadsrs but they will not be self justifying flawed leaders.


  23. - Demoralized - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 5:40 pm:

    ==He wasn’t exposed because he is a Democrat==

    Where do you draw that conclusion from? I see absolutely no evidence to support such a statement.


  24. - Soccermom - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 7:54 pm:

    OneMan — Wanted to make sure you saw this. Apparently you are in good company…

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/northams-med-school-banned-yearbooks-in-2013–after-students-posed-in-confederate-garb/2019/02/04/6050fa70-288a-11e9-8eef-0d74f4bf0295_story.htm


  25. - Soccermom - Monday, Feb 4, 19 @ 7:55 pm:

    Sorry — let me fix that link, OneMan

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/northams-med-school-banned-yearbooks-in-2013–after-students-posed-in-confederate-garb/2019/02/04/6050fa70-288a-11e9-8eef-0d74f4bf0295_story.html?utm_term=.ed24901ae029


  26. - low level - Tuesday, Feb 5, 19 @ 7:02 am:

    VM - news flash: Northam was in a very contested Dem primary in which his opponent was Tom Perriello who was backed by the Bernie wing of the Democratic party and Northam the more “establishment” candidate.

    You can bet the house the Perriello people wish they had this.

    *also, I always appreciate Will Caskey. Agree w him or not, he tells it exactly how he sees it which is very refreshing.


  27. - Will Caskey - Tuesday, Feb 5, 19 @ 8:57 am:

    Thanks for the post, Rich! :)

    Sorry I do not meet your exacting standards as a former oppo research consultant Anon :(


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