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Opposition Researchers, Stirring Up Daily Brushfires


We are just a hop, skip and a ballot away from the midterms. And we've used this election season as an excuse to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at some of the people who actually do the work of getting people elected, and in some cases, making sure they're not. Remember this moment from the 2012 Republican primary?


HERMAN CAIN: I have never sexually harassed anyone - anyone, and absolutely these are false accusations.

MARTIN: That was Herman Cain. Or maybe this sounds familiar - then Senator Obama before the 2008 election.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, while I may not know him as well as I thought either.

MARTIN: Have you ever wondered who digs up the sometimes embarrassing and campaign-changing information about a candidate? Let's just say it's not usually a disgruntled ex or wronged employee. There's probably an opposition researcher to thank or blame for taking a candidate off message.

TIM MILLER: Every day that we can come up with even a little brush fire, that's one day that they're defending that instead of talking about, you know, the policy proposals and the reasons voters in that state should want to vote for them.

MARTIN: That's Tim Miller. He's cofounder of America Rising. It's a Republican opposition research PAC.

MILLER: We're two weeks out from the election. No longer are we, you know, sending people out to county courthouses to dig through documents. All of that was done last year and in the spring. We want to know everything that they've said about their positions on the issues, their record, their private-sector background so that they're making arguments on the campaigns, we can rebut them.

LARRY ZILLIOX: My name is Larry Zilliox. I own an opposition research firm called Investigative Research Specialists.

MARTIN: Larry researches both Republican and Democratic candidates. And he's been doing it for more than 20 years. By now, he has seen it all.

ZILLIOX: There are far more people in this country who claim to be Navy Seals than ever were Navy Seals. It could be arrests for DUI or possession of drugs, things like that that happened years ago that they don't believe anybody will dig up or find.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A Horn Lake man running for Congress has some explaining to do after claiming, as he campaigns, that he served as a Green Beret in Iraq.

MARTIN: Larry remembers a time when opposition research had a pretty negative reputation and conjured images of guys digging through trash cans late at night.

ZILLIOX: When I first got in the business, you had to be careful even mentioning the words. And campaigns did it, but they didn't want to announce that they were doing it.

MILLER: You know, I think a lot of times, people think of us as looking for gotcha moments. We certainly like a gotcha moment if we can get one. But we also are looking for, you know, examples of them misrepresenting what their past record has been or what their positions are.

MARTIN: And that used to be arduous work.

ZILLIOX: When I started in this business, you had a pencil and paper and a telephone, and you would research someone by calling up a court house and where they used to live in Iowa. And the clerk would actually be willing to help you. And you'd give them a name, and they'd check their files and see if there was anything there. And if there was, they would say yes, we have a document that's been filed. It's a dollar to copy it. And you would send them a check, and they would send it back in the mail.

MARTIN: But a paper chase is no substitute for actual people in the field armed with video cameras. In 2006, a democratic operative was sent to record a campaign event. It was for then-Senator George Allen, who was running for reelection. When Senator Allen spotted the tracker, he's referenced him with a racial slur, which was of course caught on tape.


GEORGE ALLEN: This fellow here over here with the yellow and [bleep] or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere.

ZILLIOX: That's a moment in time when trackers became an extremely important, vital part of opposition research.

MARTIN: And Tim Miller says at best, the research reinforces a negative perception that the public already holds about a candidate.

MILLER: If you look at the Mitt Romney 47 percent tape, which I guess would be the most famous from the last election cycle...


MITT ROMNEY: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on him very much, who believe that they are victims.

MILLER: It was particularly a problem because he already had this negative impression that Democrats were putting out about him that, you know, he didn't care about regular folks. Whether or not that was true, that was a public perception about him. So when, you know, he was caught on tape making comments that seemed to reinforce that, you know, that was really damaging to him.

MARTIN: But what kind of person does this work? What kind of skills do they need? Here's Tim Miller.

MILLER: A killer instinct, I think, is one. We want political junkies who are watching C-SPAN on the weekends, reading Twitter obsessively. You know, one of our researchers was at home on the weekend watching C-SPAN. He caught, out of the corner of his eye, a Democratic politician pick the earwax out of his ear and eat it.

MARTIN: Tim's group captured that moment, put it online, and it went viral. But is there a red line? I asked Tim and Larry if you can ever go too far in an industry that is all about digging up dirt and earwax.

MILLER: There's both a moral and a political red line. We almost never do anything related to a candidate's family. There could be an exceptional circumstance, like maybe if their family member was involved in politics or if it was something that directly related to the candidate's judgment.

ZILLIOX: There isn't anything that we would come upon that wouldn't be in the public domain that we couldn't share. That's one of the reasons why I think opposition research today has been excepted as a political tool because it's moved away from that kind of in the shadows, dirty tricks reputation it had many years ago.

MARTIN: So if you happen to be thinking of running for office, you might want to start by researching yourself. And when those would-be secrets come out...

MILLER: The best thing that you can do when something like this comes up is immediately rip off the Band-Aid.

ZILLIOX: Something may be found in their background that could be easily explained away, but if they attempt to cover it up or they try to say, oh, that's not me or I didn't really do that, and then it comes out that it was them, that looks worse than the actual offense sometimes. In politics, the surprised look is the guilty look.

MARTIN: But that earwax moment, I couldn't let it go. With something like that, is there any part of you in that moment that says, oh, well, you know, we all do things privately or, you know, make mistakes, weird things?

MILLER: You wouldn't be a very good opposition researcher


MILLER: No, there's no part of me that said we shouldn't put the earwax video on the Internet.

MARTIN: Really?

MILLER: No, come on. I mean, it was on C-SPAN for crying out loud. You can't pick your ear and eat it.

MARTIN: That was Tim Miller of America Rising and Larry Zilliox of Investigative Research Specialists. And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.