Changes in the way voters consume information, a numbness to the negative politicking that once so offended them and the emergence of new research and data distribution technologies are clearly playing a role.
“Things once considered taboo just aren’t taboo anymore,” said Alan Huffman, an opposition researcher who co-wrote a book about the craft, “We’re With Nobody.” He attributes the shift to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when so many tawdry details were unearthed and the public became jaded to the airing of a politician’s dirty laundry. Others point to the modern news cycle, which is filled with outlets – many of them partisan – constantly trolling for content. Operatives who once valued discretion above all else now focus on mass disbursement, as items placed with even the most fringe websites can gain traction and dominate a news cycle.
The prominence of "super PACs" and campaign-oriented nonprofits is also driving once-shadowy operatives into the sunlight.
“Our focus is driving negative news narratives against [Hillary Rodham] Clinton,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising PAC, a formidable Republican operation with scores of staffers scouring campaign events, public filings, social media and any other resource they can find for nuggets that might harm the Democratic candidate.
This self-styled “new generation of Republican research and rapid response” is split into two organizations. The PAC distributes material generated by a much bigger private company staffed with researchers. The higher the profile the PAC creates, the more clients the business side reels in.
Reed proudly ticks off the damage his group has inflicted on a range of candidates. He guides a reporter through the process of finding and then leaking an embarrassing internal memo from the campaign of Michelle Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia who lost her bid for Senate last year. It mostly involved clever use of Google.
The method was not that different in 2006 when Democratic operatives stumbled on embarrassing audiotape of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – only then, nobody was rushing to take credit for finding the material. The governor launched a state police investigation to find out who slipped the audio to the Los Angeles Times. No wrongdoing was discovered – just some poor file management by the Schwarzenegger administration.