An Inside Look At The 'Dark Art' Of Politics

NPR November 3, 2011
By: Ina Jaffe, Correspondent, National Desk NPR

No one seems to be talking about Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan this week — including Herman Cain. Instead, he's had to deal with allegations that he committed sexual harassment when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.

On Wednesday night, he accused Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign of planting the story. Perry's campaign flatly denied it, and Cain has backed off.

Regardless, some political consultants have seen the invisible hand of opposition research during this campaign season — what's known as the "dark art of politics."

Testing One's Mettle

Cain is not the first Republican presidential candidate to be on the hot seat in recent months. Remember the sudden revelation that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann suffered from migraines? Backed by a note from her doctor, she made that issue go away pretty fast.

Then there was the news story about Perry's hunting camp with the racially derogatory name.

Hmmm — there seems to be a pattern here, says Joe Rodota, a Republican political consultant with offices in California and Washington, D.C.

"What seems to be happening is the second-tier or third-tier candidates get a pop and move immediately into the top rung, and within a week or so, something appears that really looks like the work either of a good investigative journalist or a good opposition researcher — or perhaps both," Rodota says.

And there's nothing wrong with that; voters deserve to know this stuff. What's wrong, perhaps, is that the campaigns seemed to be caught so flat-footed, says Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who's worked for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, among other candidates.

"The first thing you start off with, actually, is doing opposition research on your own candidate," says Lehane.

That's so you'll know what flak may be headed your way. Lehane says he feels this is so important, he co-authored a movie called Knife Fight, out this fall, in which a consultant played by Rob Lowe tries to talk a woman out of running for office.

"If you are crazy enough to do this, everything will be on the public record — from the dope that you smoked in your college lesbian experimentation period," Lowe's character says in the film.

It sounds slimy, but Lehane says he believes opposition research really does serve the democratic process, by testing the mettle of the candidate and the campaign organization.

"Folks who are going to end up in the presidency are going to be making enormous decisions, under enormous pressure, that have enormous consequences," he says. "Your single hardest day on the campaign trail is going to be your single easiest day as president."

Going Public

In doing research on the opposition, Rodota says, he starts by looking at the story the candidate tells about himself or herself.

"And then I ask the simple question: Is all of this true?" he says.

For example, let's say a candidate says: "I was a star in the business world."

"And then it turns out that they did not have a stellar record in terms of either creating jobs or paying taxes on time," Rodota says. "And in a very simple way, you can illustrate that what the candidate's asserting just isn't true."

You can get just about everything you'll need to do that from public records.

If you get some information, what do you do with it? You don't just send out a press release, Lehane says. You may have a relationship with a particular reporter, or maybe a particular show or newspaper might be the right platform, he says.

"And then you want to have different elements of it, so it's not just merely a one-day story; you want to extend this and make it a multiple-day story," Lehane says. "And so you think of all the other pieces that you will drop out there, so that you take the initial issue and create all sorts of subsequent problems."

Cain has had to deal with those subsequent problems for days — though to him, it must feel like forever.