Saturday, April 7, 2012

There Will Be Mud; political opposition researchers dish dirt, predict long slog to November election



BRIAN WILLIAMS: Welcome back. There's a story just out tonight, in fact, we mentioned it earlier on "NBC Nightly News" this evening. It says that Mitt Romney's planned $12 million expansion of his oceanside home in La Jolla, California, includes a car elevator for his four-car garage, and it's only going to add to add to an image problem that includes Swiss bank accounts and, as he put it famously, a couple of Cadillacs. So where does tonight's story come from? NBC News can confirm it came directly from the opposition research of a rival candidate. Tonight, Willie Geist takes us inside that world where, again this election cycle, they get paid to make sure there will be mud.

Narrator #1: (Campaign ad) Is this dude serious?

WILLIE GEIST reporting: You've seen the ads.

Narrator #2: (Campaign ad) Freddie Mac paid Newt $30,000 an hour.

Narrator #3: (Campaign ad) Romney drastically increased spending.

GEIST: Accusations, allegations, insinuations.

Narrator #4: (Campaign ad) Santorum pushed for billions in wasteful pork, voting for the bridge to nowhere, a teapot museum.

GEIST: Where do they get this stuff?

Narrator #5: (Campaign ad) Another counterfeit conservative.

GEIST: Welcome to the world of opposition research, or as it's known in the trade, "oppo." Oppo researchers are the people who dig up the dirt that gets turned into the mud that gets slung across the campaign trail.

Narrator #6: (Campaign ad) Twenty million, totally attacking fellow Republicans.

Mr. CHRIS LEHANE: Every single aspect of your life is going to be turned over and scrutinized. You, your spouse, your kids, everything that you've ever done is going to be looked at.

GEIST: Chris Lehane is one of the grand old men of oppo. He earned the nickname "Master of Disaster" from Newsweek magazine for his work doing damage control in the Clinton White House.

Mr. LEHANE: As you now effectively have in place a permanent opposition research campaign industrial complex. Right? You have these huge entities that are extremely well-funded. In fact, at many levels more well-funded than the traditional parties.

Mr. RODELL MOLLINEAU: The way that we look at our role is to find the truth. It needs to be grounded in some sort of fact because the American people are not stupid. Voters are not stupid.

GEIST: Rodell Mollineau is president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC devoted solely to doing oppo research.

Mr. MOLLINEAU: We have 50 people working for us. They sit in a war room. They're putting together research briefs. They're putting together research documents. They're looking at the video that our trackers send back from the field.

GEIST: The most effective way to slam a candidate is to hang him with his own words.

Mr. RICK SANTORUM: I have a personal moral objection to it. Even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it.

Narrator #7: (Campaign ad) Rick does this a lot.

GEIST: And capturing the words in the field is the job of the video tracker. American Bridge employs 17 trackers who blend into the crowd at campaign appearances waiting for that `gotcha' moment. For the better part of this primary season, they've been aiming their cameras at Mitt Romney.

Did a tracker ever send you a clip where you got it in house and you said, `We have just struck gold and this is going to change a race'?

Mr. MOLLINEAU: When Mitt Romney was at the Iowa state fair and he uttered those words, that I think will come back to haunt him throughout this election, that corporations are people.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

Mr. MOLLINEAU: We had our camera there.

GEIST: Rodell sent his trackers' footage to Martha McKenna who runs a company that makes ads for Democratic political groups.

Ms. MARTHA McKENNA: We took a look at the clip and found that we could tell a very compelling story in 30 seconds using Mitt Romney's words.

Mr. ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friends.

Ms. McKENNA: We made the ad in an afternoon, and when stations opened the next business day, it was there in New Hampshire at the stations.

GEIST: In addition to using oppo research to make ads that slam an opponent, it's standard practice to toss a story onto the Web and watch the mainstream media run with it.

How do we go from candidate A saying something at a doughnut shop in Iowa at 9:00 in the morning to having it on "The Daily Show" that night? Walk me through how you get there.

Mr. MOLLINEAU: Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving.

Mr. ROMNEY: Beautiful backdrop, huh?

GEIST: Traveling in South Carolina in January, Romney was answering questions about his taxes when he made a casual aside about income he'd made from speakers fees.

Mr. ROMNEY: And then I get speakers fees from time to time, but not very much.

GEIST: American Bridge did the quick math and saw that Romney's not very much added up to nearly $375,000.

Mr. ROMNEY: Not very much.

GEIST: It was posted to the group's website and then tweeted out to the world. The next morning it showed up on more than 130 newscasts.

Narrator #8: To have Mitt Romney dismiss a $360,000...

Ms. ANDREA MITCHELL: It wasn't that much.

Narrator #8: ...chunk.

GEIST: And that night it ended up on "The Daily Show."

Mr. JON STEWART: (From "The Daily Show") Three hundred and seventy-five thousand, thousand, in speaking fees in one 12 month period. Most Americans would think that is a lot of money.

GEIST: Political experts will say you can't win without oppo.

Narrator #9: (Campaign ad) What's the state of the middle class under Obama's leadership?

GEIST: Battling on the conservative side is super PAC American Crossroads.

Narrator #10: (Campaign ad) Crossroads GPS is responsible for the content of this advertising.

GEIST: American Crossroads was co-founded by Bush White House veteran Karl Rove. Jonathan Collegio is Crossroads director of communications.

How do you describe what you do here at American Crossroads?

Mr. JONATHAN COLLEGIO: The process will start through looking at old news stories in a service like LexisNexis, through Google, through voting records. Because a voter is not going to go through all of these data points and decide whether or not they're going to vote for somebody. They need to have it packaged for them. And I think that the packaging of the information is almost as important as the information itself.

GEIST: Nothing beats a good image in a campaign ad, whether you're talking about Michael Dukakis with the helmet on and the tank, John Kerry wind surfing.

Narrator #11: (Campaign ad) John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.

GEIST: Do you have a favorite image, something that swung a race?

Mr. COLLEGIO: Probably the most effective negative ad in modern political history was run in the 2002 Senate race in Montana that today is kind of in the hall of fame of opposition research.

Narrator #12: (Campaign ad) State Senator Mike Taylor.

GEIST: The infamous Mike Taylor ad is built around charges that he abused student loans while running a beauty school in the 1980s. But it wasn't the facts that killed Mike Taylor's bid for the Senate in Montana, it was these pictures. There he is on the left, open collared, gold chained, disco Mike Taylor, rubbing a man's temples at the beauty school.

Mr. COLLEGIO: This was the political equivalent of a gunshot wound to the head. Not only did Mike Taylor lose the race, he actually dropped out because the ad was so devastating.

GEIST: That just doesn't play in Big Sky Country.

Narrator #13: (Campaign ad) Not the way we do business here in Montana.

GEIST: At its most effective, oppo can combine an image and a fact to undercut a candidate. In the 2008, campaign when John Edwards was selling himself as a champion of the working man, the Obama oppo team noticed that images of Edwards' vanity and lifestyle were bubbling up in social media. The Obama team discovered a $400 payment to a Beverly Hills salon and fed that detail to Politico, as Ben Smith, editor at recalls.

Mr. BEN SMITH: The Obama campaign got in touch with me with this great tidbit that turned out that, yes, in fact, the Edwards campaign had been paying to have this fancy barber come and cut him on--you know, and cut his hair in his hotel room. And this immediately went viral.

GEIST: Have you all ever done anything you're ashamed of in terms of opposition research? After the fact did you say, `Man, maybe we shouldn't have done that to that guy?'



GEIST: Nothing?

Mr. MOLLINEAU: Nothing.

Mr. LEHANE: I sleep very, very well at night.

GEIST: The masters of oppo might tell you they sleep well at night, but you have to ask yourself, is this highly personal, bare knuckle, money for mud campaigning really the best way to elect our public servants?

Mr. LEHANE: I actually do think our process works as well as any process in the world. I think this is part of it. I think it actually helps make better candidates and better people when they're in office.

Mr. SANTORUM: Thank you all very much.

Mr. LEHANE: I would also say that the single hardest day on the campaign trail for presidential candidates is going to be the easiest day that you have as president.

WILLIAMS: It's the equivalent of political botox. I've never seen so many faces absent emotion, expressionless, obviously absent empathy. You can't have any and be in this line of work. Take the story where we started tonight, Mitt Romney's house in La Jolla. What do we know about that?

GEIST: They're very businesslike, you're right. That's--they take their jobs very seriously. The story about Mitt Romney and the car elevator is a perfect example of what we're talking about here. It came to Politico, as you pointed out in your lead-in. A source close to NBC tells us it did come from the Democratic side. It was leaked to Politico, went up this morning. You will undoubtedly see it on "The Daily Show" tonight. Mitt Romney, the plans for his expansion of his house in San Diego. With the city of San Diego, somebody went in and got those plans that included a, quote, "car elevator" for his four cars. And what it does is fit into a narrative. And we saw that in the piece. It's what oppo research tries to do is build a story, try to define a candidate. And they've done that with Mitt Romney, with a little help from him, by the way, from things he's said on the campaign trail.

WILLIAMS: Willie Geist, thank you very much. One of these days you're going to cover a happy topic again.

GEIST: Next week.


Up next here tonight, the story so many people across this country have been watching closely and talking about at home, the death of Trayvon Martin and what some of the people of NBC News have to say about it in relation to their own lives.

March 29, 2012

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