© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WBFO brings you NPR's live coverage of the Republican National Convention tonight from 9pm-11pm.

Opposition Research Boot Camp: Learning To Dig For Political Dirt

Opposition research is becoming a given in politics, sometimes even at the local level.
Opposition research is becoming a given in politics, sometimes even at the local level.

Opposition research exists mostly in the political shadows. So perhaps it's fitting that this boot camp is in an generic conference room in a generic airport hotel outside of Washington, D.C.

It's run by private investigator Larry Zilliox, who specializes in opposition research. He allowed me to attend a session, but not to take pictures.

Zilliox is cagey about his clients: "As a general rule, it suits me best not to comment on who I've worked for. Everybody is better off that way."

But when pressed, Zilliox says he focuses on local and state races in Virginia.

Opposition research for high-profile races for Congress or the White House is generally handled in-house, by the parties or by Washington's biggest law firms. In the 2012 presidential cycle a superPAC sprang up putting big money and a lot of manpower behind Democratic opposition research. GOP consultants are now pledging to do the same.

And included in last month's Republican National Committee's lengthy post-election wish-list for the party, was this:

"An allied group dedicated to research to establish a private archive and public website that does nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats would serve as an effective vehicle for affecting the public issue debate."

The Training

Zilliox alternates between sitting and standing at the front of the room, working his way through a day-long PowerPoint presentation. A small man with a large beard and a passion for digging into people's backgrounds, Zilliox is author of the Opposition Research Handbook, written in 1993, and now in its fourth edition.

"You're researching a candidate's background," he says. "But also not only his personal background and his business background but his political background and his political activities."

There are about 10 people in the room, each of whom paid $249 for a day of training. Among them are a handful of grizzled private investigators, who when asked if they've conducted opposition research before, say a lot of things like this, from Norman Williams: "I wouldn't say if I have or haven't."

Williams drove some 500 miles to Washington from Lexington, Ky., looking to expand his private investigation businesses further into politics. But also among the attendees are three young staffers from an environmental group, and a man from a public affairs firm who looks very uncomfortable when he sees my microphone.

Zilliox guides them through his basics of opposition research: Don't lie about what you're doing. Call it research, not an investigation. And don't do anything that you wouldn't want to explain on the 6 o'clock news.

"What you do affects your candidate, and the last thing you want to do is intimidate somebody," Zilliox counsels. "Lie to somebody, cause a scene in a courthouse. Do something that brings attention to yourself because, then it takes your candidate off message."

From Shoe Leather To Social Media

Opposition research relies on some old basics: court records, voting history and in some cases phone and financial records. And some new avenues made available by the Internet.

"If you're just looking for a drug store, you can [do a Google search] and take the first response. But when you're doing opposition research, if it gives you a couple hundred possible results, you've got to go through them all, because you never know what's going to be valuable when."

Case in point: the Mitt Romney 47-percent video. A short clip from this video was hiding in plain sight on YouTube, but it took a determined freelance opposition researcher to find it and get publicity.

Could the people in Zilliox's opposition research boot camp uncover the next politically explosive video? There's no telling. For Zilliox, some of his biggest blockbusters came in researching people thinking about a run for office. Candidates often run research on themselves to see what their opposition might find.

"I've researched people who almost everything they've said about their background wasn't true," he says. "They didn't have the resources they claimed, didn't work the jobs they had claimed. All sorts of stuff. I guess they just didn't think people would find out."

If it's out there, he says, someone will find it. These days there are lots of researchers looking.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.