Last week former Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades and two young Republican sharpshooters, Tim Miller and Joe Pounder, announced they would set up a new organization, America Rising, devoted to the collection, dissemination and deployment of opposition research against Democrats and a counterpart to the hugely successful American Bridge on the left. On Friday I sat down with Miller and Pounder at a Capitol Hill Starbucks to talk about their new venture.
They plan on instigating nothing less than a revolution in the way the right does and uses oppo research. They are keen on connecting research to communication and every other aspect of campaigns. Pounder tells me, “It must be responsive to the news cycle and polling.” Miller jokes that “research has been people sitting in a dungeon or going through trash cans” and then funneling the information up to a press person to send out in a mass e-mail. Miller says, “Now you have to drive the news cycle.”
The Romney campaign was certainly hobbled by the Democrats’ opposition machine, which cranked out information on everything from Bain to Cayman bank accounts, funneled it to friendly press outlets and the Obama super PAC, and kept the Romney team on perpetual defense. But the problem is not specific to the Romney campaign. Miller recalls, “We had a great model in 2004 — research guys who fed to Drudge. Drudge drove the mainstream media.” But, he says, “in a lot of ways we haven’t done a good job of updating [that model]. Over time we rested on our laurels.”
The Democrats fostered what Miller and Pounder call a whole information “ecosystem” that includes American Bridge, left-wing blogs and a receptive mainstream media. They also have a culture of sharing information, best practices and data use among groups as diverse as the Human Rights Campaign and J Street. The right needs to arm itself with comparable tools.
American Rising has two parts: One is an limited liability company that Pounder will oversee and will supply clients (which could conceivably include everyone from the Republican National Committee to groups such as Club for Growth) with opposition material on Democrats. In trying to catch up with the left’s technology advantage, Pounder sees his operation as a “laboratory for technology” that includes people in fields outside of politics.
Miller will be running the other part, a PAC. He says, “We need an independent organization that can drive the toughest negative narrative against Democrats.” That means a Web site and outreach to news outlets of all types.
They argue that 2014 will provide a target-rich environment, given the number of House and Senate Democrats whose voting records diverge from their home-state images as moderates. The essence of good research is simple, Pounder explains: “Good research matches what someone does with what they say — whether you call that pandering, hypocrisy or flip-flopping. Whenever it occurs on video it’s even better. It is the old classic show and tell. Don’t tell them — show them.” That means a new effort on tracking candidates and following their speeches, votes, appearances and now even their tweets. America Rising plans to develop a bank of material not only about current candidates but also about candidates coming up in future races.
On the right there are a lot of groups with vague missions, all pumping out online and TV ads. Some of that is donor-driven. Rich donors like to see ads on TV, to be blunt. But it is far from effective or a good use of resources. Democrats, by contrast, have created a bevy of specialists who can fill needs for their campaigns. Republicans are finally waking up to that contrast. Miller says: “We need more groups that fill clear lanes. We have lots of groups doing TV ads. But people are seeing that an organization can be more successful if they are filling a specific need.”
It is hard to do that with oppo research entirely encased within a party organization or a campaign. Take the Democrats’ Bain attacks. Those rattled a lot of pro-business Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Cory Booker. For the Democratic National Committee to pursue that would have created a range of conflicts and roadblocks. But Jim Messina operating out in Priorities USA had a single goal — destroying Romney, which he did brilliantly. In addition, campaigns are keen on keeping on “message,” but they still can’t let the other side’s attacks go without a response nor sacrifice their own attack machine. That is where a stand-alone research operation comes into play.
Specialization also becomes critical in a news environment overloaded with network and cable shows, radio, local shows, blogs and tweets. Given all that, Pounder says that the right needs at least one organization that uses “100 percent of its resources” to monitor and influence the “explosion of outlets.”
Conservatives complain that the right is perpetually at a disadvantage in dealing with the mainstream media, reporters who are not predisposed to understand or empathize with their positions ,and outlets that are flat-out rooting for the other side (the “fanboys,” as Andrew Ferguson refers to them). That said, media bias is like gravity — a given in the political universe that conservatives must contend with. The Romney campaign was among the worst, managing to be adversarial with both mainstream and conservative outlets and showing itself unable to deal tactfully with editors and reporters. If you are at war with the media, conservatives will find themselves perpetually at a disadvantage, whether playing offense or defense. Miller acknowledges internal training is needed to help a “new generation of operatives.” He says dryly, “The mainstream media is not going to be 100 percent in step with our candidates.” But, he insists, “good content is the one underlying thing we have in common. Everyone needs to have good content.
“You can’t have such a bad relationship that they won’t cover negative stuff about Democrats.”
The reaction to the launch has been overwhelmingly positive in the RNC and among campaign operatives and advocates. Pounder notes, “A lot of people have sensed a need for this.” Miller observes, “A lot of campaigns who were on the receiving end of American Bridge research are very happy.” It is one more sign that a new generation of GOP operators are tired of losing — and tired of playing with outmoded tools.