The Obamans are similarly busy archiving every speech and quote from Romney. When Romney becomes the nominee of his party, the thinking goes, he will have to tack back to the center during the general election and court independents with more moderate views—and Democrats will be there to receive him with video highlights of any far-right rhetoric to scare the bejesus out of voters.
“The thing we found last cycle in polling, you almost always have to have video now to raise the credibility if it’s a quote somebody says,” says Mike Gehrke, a pollster at Benenson Strategy Group, the Obama campaign’s polling firm. “If you’re going to try to show somebody saying something crazy, you have to have it on video; otherwise, it’s just garbage.”
To begin creating content, campaigns and their super-PAC brethren hire trackers to follow candidates on the trail with cameras, recording their every word and then feeding it back to headquarters to be tagged, catalogued, and archived. In essence, it’s 24/7 surveillance—and free footage for the TV networks and cable channels and online news sites to churn the news on an hourly basis. Before long, it could be on a second-by-second basis: Gehrke was recently shown some new technology used by professional sports scouts that can live-feed video from trackers, allowing central command to instantly replay a clip moments after it happened, meaning a campaign could theoretically create rapid-response videos all day long. “You could whip out a highlight reel like nothing,” he says.
Once the information is collected, it’s organized into themes for the larger strategic playbook and sequenced to drop week by week until November. “Campaigns have all this bundled and ready to drop,” says Lehane. “What I call the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ which contains all my hits, singles, doubles, and home runs, and I think, ‘How am I going to disseminate those over an extended period of time, and how am I going to build up the story line?’ ”
Because there’s only so much bandwidth in any news cycle, finding the right moment to unveil negative information is its own kind of art form. When the Associated Press published a story on the Romney-family charity’s investments in Iran—a story encouraged by the opposition-research department at Priorities USA—the story got lost in the dog days of summer. “It will come up again in the campaign,” promises Bill Burton.
Ultimately, leaking information to the press is often just an attempt to get the imprimatur of a news outlet around a piece of research (or “oppo,” as they call it in the trade), to legitimize it so it can be used in an advertisement. If this makes the press sound like desperate lackeys who are willingly exploited by political consultants—well, the operatives privately regard reporters at places like Politico as little more than glorified referees for their gold-plated research and poll-tested attacks.
An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”
“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”
Twitter, barely a factor in 2008, is now the ideal delivery system for oppo, because information can emerge from the margins through a lower-tier agent, often anonymously, and get amplified on much bigger platforms, and quickly. “What it’s done is shorten the path from the oppo-researcher’s desk to the reader,” says Gehrke.
That means the new rule for negative campaigning is emerging, the same one that applies to TV advertising in a fragmented cable spectrum: repetition, ad nauseam. “For instance, the flip-flopping angle with Mitt,” explains Rodell Mollineau, president of pro-Obama super-PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “You can be another organization that puts out the fifteenth press release on that, and sometimes you need to just have twelve, thirteen, fourteen of the same thing, knock it into the people’s consciousness.”
The Obama and Romney campaigns both say they’ll run positive campaigns because people want a real vision for America. But that’s just another way of saying they’ll let the super-PACs do the dirty work. And though it’s illegal for Axelrod to talk to Bill Burton about coordinating a negative message on Romney, Axelrod can simply use press stories to telegraph attack lines, which then get echoed by other operatives and media. Lehane says Politico, in particular, is now the interlocutor between the top strategists and their allies. “Now you effectively have the person who is your field marshal do an interview on Politico, and it gets around the world a lot faster than the old fax approach,” he says.