Opposition Research

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By Beate Potzmader 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
(Sun Tzu, The Art of War) 

What is opposition research?
Political campaigns are mostly defined according to the opponent. The observation of opponents is a key instrument of political strategy and, for over two decades, a professional part of election campaigns, particularly in the USA. Some party-people still resist opposition research – “Why do we need it? We have no money and no people. We prefer our own, positive message; let’s concentrate on this.” But it is an unavoidable fact that, in the coming years, the consistent observation of opponents will be an integral part of any campaign. This concerns in particular publicly accessible information. So it does not involve the invasion of privacy, baseless allegations or snooping! Opposition research detects developments and projects at an early stage, but also the opponents’ conflicts and contradictions. It is important to know how that information can be used for one’s own campaign. 

Opposition research is not just about the opponent’s weaknesses; it can also serve to anticipate attacks. It is crucial to recognise one’s own potential weaknesses in communication and to ward these off with appropriate responses (arguments, counter-attacks, or ignore them). 

There are 3 main activities of opposition research:
Planning of scenarios / analysis of opponents: 

  • Monitor strategies of the opponents in order to plan your own activities
  • Understand the opponents and their ‘script’: what persons, messages, strategies, arguments are used in direct confrontation?
  • Analyse past election campaigns and election results
  • Understand the communication strategy of the others

Observation: what should be observed? 

  • Reading newspapers is not enough! Overall media monitoring is required
  • Portraits and profiles of opponents
  • Campaign material
  • Direct contacts (mail, canvassing, activities on the streets)
  • Events
  • Networks, trade unions
  • Online media (social media, blogs, etc.)
  • Political attacks and allegations by opponents directed at the Greens

Documentation 

  • Archives are worthless if you can’t find any information
  • Material should meet three criteria: correspond to the truth/ be open to the public/ have political relevance

Negative Campaigning
Negative campaigning is a tactic that attacks the opponent directly – with or without comparison to the alternative(s) proposed by one’s own party. In some countries, the Greens are subjected to massive amounts of negative campaigning. Negative campaigning is likely to become an increasingly decisive element of campaigning. Both in day-to-day political debates and in communication networks, polarising statements will get on to the agenda more easily. The sustained success of negative campaigning for campaigners is open to question, however. In the meantime, the negative campaigning in election campaigns has itself become a topic of discussion (e.g. dirty campaigning). In any case, it is crucial to know about attacks by opponents in advance. 

Objectives of opposition research
The goal is to integrate and organise opposition research as part of the election campaign to enable the systematic collection of relevant information. Specific objectives are to: 

  • Understand the strategic direction of the opponents in order to improve the way we can respond or react. Who is the opponent attempting to reach, and with what message? Which target groups do they communicate with?
  • Identify attacks on the Greens as early as possible, and provide interfaces for rapid response measures
  • Identify and demonstrate your opponents’ weaknesses, such as substantive contradictions, dissent within opposition ranks, weaknesses, etc. Obtain information for mobilisation and de-mobilisation strategies
  • Select, document and archive relevant information
  • Collect relevant information for direct conflicts with opponents (street campaign), media (candidate discussions), online, etc.

Instruments of opposition research
Media monitoring 

  • National news agencies
  • Determine the selection criteria: what is important (attacks on the Greens, thematic priorities, strategic announcements)
  • Clarify who is responsible for rebuttals, and prepare arguments to refute attacks on the Greens
  • Relevant local newspapers and other local media (TV, radio, etc.)
  • Online media
  • Ongoing monitoring of the other parties on the internet, including party organisations and initiatives
  • Watch forums and provide internet activists with information
  • Monitor discussions: what is discussed intensely?

– Preparation of discussion points (for candidates) and direct communication 

  • Content for confrontation with political opponents
  • Not only the media but also ‘on the road’
  • Goal: to maintain direct contacts
  • ‘Food’ for training of activists, officials, candidates
  • Know the opponents’ arguments

Regular support – strategic evaluation 

  • How did the opponents communicate? How do they position themselves?
  • Regular updates with essential information

– Timetable of opponents 

– Regional information 

  • Establish a network between the federal and state governments for opposition research
  • How to communicate with the opponent in countries and communities? Are there any differences compared to the federal line? Are there targeted attacks on the Greens?
  • Media, events, advertisements, campaign material

Target groups and network monitoring 

  • How do our opponents communicate in our major networks and with target groups?
  • Observation of direct mails, events for target groups
  • Organisation of feedback loops with Green supporters in Green networks
  • How effective is the opponent’s communication strategy?

– Advertising and campaign events 

  • Monitoring and collection of the most important advertising campaigns of other parties, especially those with the ‘wrong’ content and/or strategically relevant messages

– Archiving 

  • Database with selected information
  • No excessive claims: the point is not to collect all the substantial details of the opponents, but specific information which could be used against the opponent in a political context
  • Also provide information that could be used at the local level
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