How to do opposition research on the Internet
More and more, opposition research is a term that means knowing where to look on the Internet for the public record of your opponent.
Opposition research. To many, these two little words conjure up images of private investigators sitting in cars with infrared cameras and ultrasensitive listening devices. To others, opposition researchers are detectives, people in the mold of Jim Rockford or Lt. Columbo. They wander around and ask penetrating questions of people connected with the campaign. “Well, did you actually see the candidate going into the motel with Ms. Jablinski?”
In reality, true opposition research is more apt to be someone sitting in front of a computer examining everything from newspaper articles, to property records, to civil and criminal court records. The examination of the public record has always been what real opposition research is all about. And prior to the popularization of the Internet, that examination of the public record had to be done on-site, by hand.
The process was painstakingly slow. As an example, my company recently did a project going back 25 years into the public record in a rural part of California where no online resources existed. The project took five people six months to complete. In addition to being slow and time-consuming, the cost to the client was staggering.
With more and more databases going online, the focus of opposition research has changed. No longer is it always necessary for research people to sit in warehouses sifting through an endless stack of archived materials for weeks or months on end. Granted, this type of search is still often necessary. But more and more, opposition research means knowing where to look on the Internet for the public record of your opponent.
So what are the basic fundamentals of opposition research?
General Search Engines
First you must have a computer, modem and online service that lets you search the Internet. Second, use a good search engine. A search engine is nothing more than a way to find on the Internet material on your topic of interest.
For example, I was recently looking for information on coaching kids’ soccer. I went out on a search engine, typed in “soccer” and examined the hits (items of interest) that came up on the screen. Way too many to plow through for my taste. Then I typed in “kids soccer” and examined a much smaller number of hits. Not finding what I wanted, I typed in “kids soccer coach.” One of the hits was books for coaching kids soccer. I double-clicked on it. Bull’s-eye! A good list of books I could order. Thanks to my trusty search engine and ability to delineate what I was looking for, I will now at least appear to be knowledgeable in the art of kicking a soccer ball! I only wish all searches were this easy.
Many good search engines exist and new ones come online practically every day. Everyone has a favorite one to use. Some of the more popular engines are:
AOL Netfind http://www.aol.com/netfind
Alta Vista http://www.altavista.com
These engines work in slightly different ways. The way you word your queries will vary. Most engines have mechanisms for narrowing your search. Some engines want you to put the information you are looking for in quotation marks, others utilize punctuation. Still other engines have boxes you check to define your search. Be sure to read how the engine works before plowing in. Otherwise your search may result in too many or too few hits. In addition, some engines like AskJeeves or MetaCrawler actually browse other search engines and then give you the results.
Don’t fall into the trap of relying on just one search engine. For a thorough project, use from three to five engines. Remember that a search engine is only as good as the material that has been registered with it. An engine can’t retrieve.a site that isn’t in its registry. Think of it as a music store. Some stores carry a bigger selection than others, as each has its own strengths.
A good search engine for national and international newspapers online is Ecola which can be found at http://www.ecola.com/news/press/. Literally hundreds of newspapers are listed at this site and can be viewed with downloading privileges at little or no cost for most.
Individual sites are also available for newspapers of most medium-sized to large cities. Use your general search engine to type in the name of the paper and examine the hits. Usually you can find the paper you are looking for pretty quickly. Of course, if you are not adventurous, you can always just call the newspaper and ask them for its Web page. Most newspapers charge no fee for examining their headlines and anywhere from 50 cents to $2 to download an entire article. If you are really strapped for cash, you can always print out the headlines and go to the local library to copy articles that are of interest to you.
Just like general search engines, newspaper search engines continue to improve dramatically, and new ones keep popping up every day.
For a broader look into newspaper, magazine and TV transcripts and videos from some of the larger media markets, you might try the Electronic Library (http://www.elibrary.com). For a small fee you can access their database to search hundreds of media records from around the United States and the world.
For court searches, a good resource is KnowX (http://www.knowx.com). This is a fee-based service where you can access millions of records of court cases from across the country. In addition, KnowX can search property records, residential addresses and phone numbers. Lexis-Nexis, WestLaw and other paid database sources also have court cases online, sometimes in much greater detail, but they are often more expensive.
The advantage with an online service in court cases is that you can quickly determine if any cases exist on your opponent. Just knowing which cases exist is a tremendous timesaver. Court cases, however, can be notoriously difficult to comprehend who won, who lost, what was the final settlement. And the short summaries provided by the online services do not lend themselves to useful analysis. Most often, cases will contain useful information that will not be included on the short summaries of the computer searches. It is my advice, therefore, that you still go on-site to examine the case file in person to determine specific relevancy.
Incumbent Voting Records
More state legislatures are putting proposed legislation and voting records of legislators online. The fastest and most comprehensive records are via paid services but several states have developed their own systems for easy and free retrieval of legislative records. Depending upon the sophistication and depth of the system, these databases can save you weeks of hand searches on your opponent’s legislative career.
Congressional legislation can be examined back to 1973 via THOMAS, (http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.html). This service allows you to look at legislation and House roll call votes back to 1990, U.S. Senate roll call votes back to 1989 and the congressional record. This database has a variety of search methods to find exactly what you are looking for. Congressional Quarterly also maintains extensive voting databases on members of the U.S. House and Senate that can be purchased. The Web site is at http://www.cq.com.
On a local level, some municipalities have started placing local government meeting minutes online. This is a most recent practice and usually does not go back more than a year or two. Nevertheless it is worth checking out if you are researching a local public official’s voting record.
Other Online Databases
1) People Finders. From time to time an address needs to be checked out, or an individual found. As previously mentioned, KnowX provides this service as do:
Reverse telephone directories are online as well and can be useful when you have a phone number and need an address, or vice versa.
2) Property Records. Property records in many states are online but usually not as a free search. In California property searches can be done by such firms as Lexis-Nexis and DataQuick, and, as previously mentioned, KnowX.
3) Special Interest Group Sites. Many interest groups have their own Web pages and are starting to list incumbent voting records or are posting the results of candidate questionnaires on the Internet. The League of Women Voters, The Sierra Club, the California Farm Bureau and the California Chamber of Commerce are four such groups. These voting records and questionnaires are good sources of background information on the candidate and his stance on the issues. In my experiences, a search of these sites can often uncover attempts by the candidates to ingratiate themselves to a particular special interest at the expense of the general electorate.
4) Campaign Contribution Reports. Campaign contribution statements are online in some states, usually via a paid search engine. In addition, the FEC (http://www.fec.gov/) puts congressional campaign reports online. Remember to follow all laws with regard to the use of these reports.
5) Paid Databases. Some highly sophisticated databases are on the Internet for civil and criminal court searches, property records, newspaper searches and legislative and campaign contribution report searches. In fact, if there is something you are looking for – Social Security numbers, DMV records, credit reports- chances are there is some database company that sells it. Many of them require a monthly retainer and minimum online usage charges. Many times, these are searches where it is more cost effective to simply hire a research firm or a private investigative firm. Private investigators utilize these databases extensively and can conduct your search quickly and cost efficiently.
Be sure to check the legality of your search. In California, for instance, requesting various types of information from the Department of Motor Vehicles for campaign research is illegal. Credit reports and other searches are also guided by various state and federal laws. Don’t violate these laws! It will do your campaign more harm than good if you illegally obtain information about your opponent.
Some Things to Watch Out For
1) Buyer Beware. Like any new venture, the Internet is full of “buyer beware” situations, and research online is no different. Beware of the Web researcher who offers to conduct some of the searches outlined earlier for what seems like a low fee. Oftentimes they are simply doing the same searches you could do free. The real value of using a professional research firm is not simply its ability to search the Internet, but its ability to analyze the mounds of data that usually pour in on a subject.
2) Garbage In. The data that was put into the Internet is only as good as the person who posted it. Double-check everything! Mistakes in the field of opposition research can be deadly to your campaign. Case in point:
A recent state legislative race was lost due to the researcher confusing two people with the same name, one had paid their taxes, and one hadn’t. A hit piece was done the last week of the campaign on the unpaid taxes. And it backfired drastically! The candidate making the hit won the absentee vote hit by 5 percent but lost the Election Day vote by 8 percent. Moral: Double check, then triple check your facts before going to print. The campaign you save may be your own!
3) Search and search again. Data comes and goes on the information superhighway faster than any of us realize. Web pages come into existence, cease to operate, are updated or purged constantly.
When you find something of interest, download it immediately because it may not be there tomorrow. Use the Internet to do weekly searches on your opponent.
Many newspapers actually allow you to have articles downloaded on topics you specify. Take advantage of it.
Examine your opponent’s Web page if he or she has one. Candidates, prior to getting professional help, sometimes place rather stupid things on their pages. If you are quick, this information can be downloaded and your opponent held accountable for it.
You’re Not Done Yet
Like an octopus, political research has many tentacles that will lead you down disparate paths. For your project to be complete, each path will need to be fully examined.
A search on your opponent’s campaign contributions could result in finding a large contribution from a mysterious company called TBC. Who or what is this TBC? Who else do they contribute to? Why are they contributing such a large amount of money to your opponent? What type of business are they? Have they ever been sued? Man! Just when you thought you were wrapping it all up, back you go to your trusty search engines.
Good luck, and happy research surfing!
John Bovee is president of The Bovee Company, a Sacramento-based consulting firm that specializes in fundraising and research for Republicans and corporate clients.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.
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