My Life as a Professional Political Dirt-Digger

On the average day, you would find me scouring Lexis-Nexis databases of old newspaper articles, searching for a candidate’s name in combination with keywords such as “supremacist,” “rape,” “drunk,” or “insider trading.”
Publish date:
January 20, 2012
electoral politics, scandal, campaigns

Campaigns have been excelling in the art of mud-slinging for ages. In fact, I imagine that the entire concept of “mud-slinging” first came about when some neanderthal decided he wanted to be Cave President, and a more-qualified female neanderthal threw mud at his face.

Campaigns haven’t really evolved much from the caveman days. The only difference is that now, they have the Internet! And for several years, I received a salary to dig up the best mud I could find, and package it up nicely for someone else to fling.

I was an opposition researcher, or “opp researcher,” if you’re politically hip. On the average day, you would find me scouring Lexis-Nexis databases of old newspaper articles, searching for a candidate’s name in combination with keywords such as “supremacist,” “rape,” “drunk,” or “insider trading.”

Maybe this makes me a pretty awful person, but I can say with a smile that I have helped to ruin few political careers. I discovered that an Ohio politician had thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes to the state. I’ve spent countless hours leafing through divorce files of middle-aged white men, looking for a nugget about how they once beat their wife, or how they refused to pay child support for two years.

Generally, researchers put together “books” on their target. These books run anywhere from 150 to 500 pages in Microsoft word, and cover every aspect of a person’s life that’s ever been documented in the public sphere.

The key word here is “public,” and it’s why I maintain that my career choices haven’t necessarily doomed me for an afterlife in the inferno. I wasn’t pulling a "Homeland," secretly setting up video cameras in people’s bedrooms or listening in on their phone conversations. I gathered all of my information through legal, ethical means: news articles, court documents, social media postings, financial disclosures.

And furthermore, I like to think that I was doing something of a public service. Sure, it was for a paycheck and there was some pretty seriously biased intent going on, but if I didn’t scour politicians’ pasts for dirty laundry, who would? In my opinion, voters deserve to know the whole truth about the people who place their names on the ballot.

And the truth is? Too many corrupt jerks run for office in this country! They might hail from the Wyoming countryside or they may have spent their entire life in a Baltimore suburb -- they come in all races, all shapes and sizes. The Republican Party has them, and so does the Democratic Party. Libertarians and Independents, you’re not exempt! They can be found anywhere and everywhere. And opposition researchers work to help expose them... for the gain of another politician who is (hopefully!) less corrupt.

Sorry, do I sound jaded? Yeah, I know. Like most people who work in politics, I eventually lost most of my youthful passion and faith in the political process to create change.

Other people always assume that because I have dedicated my career to campaigns and political causes, I must be really extreme. Guys at bars will sometimes try to get me cleverly riled up by telling me that they voted for Bush or that they don’t believe in voting.

My response is usually something along the lines of, “That’s cool.” Sure, I’m passionate about what I believe, but I don’t think that barroom banter gets much accomplished.

We have to work with the system that we’ve got. We need more good people to run for office, maybe some more people who don’t have long, complicated public records that need scrubbing. Researchers hate it when the Average Joe(sephine) runs for office, because there’s nothing to dig up, no mud to fling.

Good research can make or break a campaign. It’s a researcher’s job to know everything about their own candidate and their opponent. If a TV ad goes up that says your candidate once voted to give scholarships to pedophiles, the researcher has to instantly produce hard, documented evidence (hopefully) disproving the claim.

Good luck getting the TV ad pulled, though. Stations will basically only stop airing an advertisement if God himself walks through the door and says it’s false.

Once, a rival campaign made an ad which, in merely 30 seconds, managed to accuse my candidate of being a baby-killer, supporting gangs, and loving marijuana. Within a few hours, we had a fact sheet out the door which gave reporters the real facts about her record, but the ad still played on. In the end, she still won the election -- mostly because the ad was so ridiculous, it damaged its own credibility.

Voting records are easily manipulated, so much so that most of the things you hear in campaign ads are usually only a little bit true. Yeah, that Congressman probably did vote to cut funding for schools, but it might have been because he was supporting a different bill that made up for the funding from a different source.

If it sounds too awful to be true, it usually is... unless it has to do with Republicans threatening to shut down the government over the funding of Planned Parenthood. That is 100% true, my friends, and let us not forget it.

So in a world of mud-slinging and altered facts, how does one go on voting in good faith? Well, I can tell you what I do: my own research. Don’t pay attention to billboards or TV ads, because those will only tell you who has the most money. Read a variety of news sources about the candidates, both conservative and liberal -- or even better, unbiased (if you can find such a thing). If you hear something egregious about someone, do a quick Google search to find out the backstory. You may be surprised at what you can find.

In the end, the candidate you’re electing will only be in office for a couple of years before they have to run again. And if they do anything too awful, just remember: nothing stays hidden for long in politics. You can thank an opposition researcher for that.