Wednesday night, only former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley brought the oppo research receipts.
When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for national energy independence, Haley raised his record of opposition to fracking and offshore oil development. When Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) rolled out his federal budget platform, she pointed to his 12-year voting record in Washington.
The attack clearly stung. In the closing minutes of the debate, Scott wanted revenge. He charged Haley with wasting tax dollars on new curtains in her United Nations office. Haley saw it coming. “Bring it, Tim,” she smiled and then delivered a counterpunch: The curtains were ordered under the Obama administration.
Scott did try to expose Vivek Ramaswamy as a hypocrite, bringing up his record of doing business in China as a pharmaceutical CEO. But Scott’s charge was awkward and hard to follow, and the exchange devolved into cross-talk, prompting DeSantis to suggest the topic wasn’t worth debating. (Haley disagreed, and in a post-debate interview with Fox host Sean Hannity she filled in some of Scott’s gaps, asserting that Ramswamy’s Chinese partners also did business with Hunter Biden.)
Former Vice President Mike Pence half-heartedly challenged DeSantis’ fiscal conservatism, pointing out Florida’s budget has grown 30 percent. DeSantis didn’t bother responding.
In the first GOP debate, the candidates didn’t leverage oppo at all, relying on one-liners instead. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dismissed Ramaswamy as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT,” suggesting the glib businessman and author lacked originality and merely scraped and packaged his platform from the Internet. Christie’s zinger got a laugh, but it didn’t change the momentum of the debate. Ramaswamy simply absorbed the punch with a smile and moved on.
Without the heft added by facts, without the nuggets an oppo research unit generates, any impacts from these kinds of attacks are usually short-lived.
For a stark contrast with the GOP oppo research deficit, look no further than the first Democratic presidential primary debate from the 2020 cycle. Then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) chided former Vice President Joe Biden for his vocal opposition to school busing in the 1970s and for waxing nostalgic about his ability at the time to work with some of the Senate’s most ardent segregationists. In the most memorable exchange of the evening — and perhaps of the entire primary debate season — Harris added: “There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Biden was unprepared and clearly taken aback. His response was unfocused and ineffective. Harris got a bump in the polls and in online fundraising. She also got noticed by Biden’s aides, who prevailed upon the former vice president to select Harris as his running mate.
There has been no similar moment in either of the first two GOP primary debates.
One reason Republicans’ attacks on one another aren’t drawing blood is because they aren’t backed by verbatim quotes and clear, memorable illustrations — the bread and butter of oppo research. This may be in part because the candidates have turned responsibility for this work over to various SuperPACs. The justification seems to be that oppo research is a “back office” function best subsidized by SuperPACs with fewer fundraising constraints and bigger budgets. Leaders of Never Back Down, the SuperPAC supporting the candidacy of DeSantis, have been quite public about carving out oppo research as their territory.
But shipping these jobs from a campaign to a SuperPAC comes with risk.
In my experience, an opposition research team works best when it is tightly integrated into campaign strategy. That’s because an oppo researcher needs to know where the campaign is headed next — which big speeches are on the calendar, when the next digital ad is going to drop. When I ran oppo research for major federal and state candidates, I was joined at the hip to the campaign’s advertising and earned media leadership. That gave me time to assign projects to researchers that might take days or weeks to complete, so the oppo was fully baked when needed.
Moreover, when SuperPACs take over oppo, another problem arises: How to share their findings with the candidate campaign, without running afoul of federal campaign laws, which make coordination illegal? This has led to the practice of posting opposition research books in full on the Internet — the term of art is an “oppo dump” — so that it can be miraculously “discovered” by the campaign.
In the days leading up to the first Republican primary debate, a political consulting firm working for the DeSantis-affiliated SuperPAC Never Back Down posted online its oppo research report on Ramaswamy. The report, according to some observers, included a “dog whistle” reference to Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith, and was quickly taken down. DeSantis had to distance himself from both the oppo research and the debate strategy memo that accompanied it.
Besides the unnecessary distraction, this “oppo dump” gave Ramaswamy a roadmap to the barbs heading his way, allowing him time to prepare. Keeping oppo research in-house allows a campaign to benefit from the element of surprise.
As the candidates decamp from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley and start preparing for their next debate in Miami on November 8, they would do well to remember the legendary Reagan speechwriter Kenneth Khachigian. His advice, preserved in the 40th president’s archives, became the oppo researcher’s mantra: “Campaigns are won in the library.”