Why Mitt Romney's former right-hand man is taking on a much different role in 2016

AP Photo/Charles DharapakSpencer Zwick, then national finance chairman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaks at a campaign fundraising event in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2012.

When Spencer Zwick looks back at the “defining moments” of the 2012 election, an obvious one sticks out.

Zwick, who ran the massive fundraising operation for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, saw firsthand how the then-imperfect version of “opposition research” hit his candidate’s campaign hard.

In September of that year, a bombshell video showed Romney dismissing the “47%” of people dependent on government handouts, who he said would vote Democratic “no matter what.”

That video was not discovered by President Barack Obama’s campaign or even a traditional news outlet. It was filmed at a fundraiser and unearthed by James Carter IV, then a freelance opposition researcher who tipped off Mother Jones. But it became an ever-present theme of the campaign’s last two months, as Democrats used it to torch Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat.

“The opposition used that very effectively. They used 47% as a way to define Mitt Romney,” Zwick told Business Insider in a recent interview. “There’s an old saying in politics: If you’re explaining, you’re losing. And it required Gov. Romney to explain what he had said.”

The good news for Republicans in the 2016 election cycle: If there are moments like that on the Democratic side, the GOP is going to have an elaborate effort to try and find them. That’s what’s behind Zwick’s announcement that he will chair the opposition-research firm America Rising PAC. 

He’ll work as a volunteer on the PAC. But signing on with America Rising, a two-plus-year-old firm founded in the wake of the 2012 campaign, means he’ll stay neutral in a crowded primary field of more than a dozen Republican candidates.

For Zwick, it wasn’t a hard choice. He feels that ultimately, opposition research will have just as much — if not more — say in influencing the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Campaigns are now run through an ever-increasing number social media platforms, he explained, and candidates have become all the more visible.

“After 2012, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could have impact in the 2016 cycle,” Zwick said. “There were a lot of lessons learned for me in 2012 about what the ingredients are for a campaign. Anytime you have an experience like that, I think it presents an opportunity to reflect and what didn’t. … 2012 was really the first social-media campaign that had existed in presidential politics.”

Mitt Romney 47 per centYouTubeA screengrab of Mitt Romney’s remarks at a fundraiser in 2012 referring to the

What that means is that candidates increasingly are making their own news cycles. Or, groups like America Rising are doing it for them.

Democrats already had a group like this in 2012. American Bridge, the Democratic opposition group founded by David Brock, dug up such scoops as then-Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape” and abortion. In its lengthy “autopsy report” after the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee called for an “outside group” to focus “solely on research of Democrats.”

Enter America Rising, which burst onto the scene in the aftermath of the 2012 election. It was founded by Romney’s former campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, who Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, recently said is the “smartest Republican operative today.” Tim Miller, now the communications director for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, and Joe Pounder were the group’s other two co-founders.

Upon its inception, America Rising immediately set out to research Hillary Clinton, who was expected even then to launch a front-running Democratic bid for the White House. And America Rising made its presence felt in the 2014 midterm elections, when Republicans rode a wave to recapture control of the US Senate, by both researching Democratic candidates and by sending so-called “trackers” to record their every move on video.

“What’s happened is that TV advertising has become much less effective for a campaign,” Zwick said. “People recognise when a political ad comes on, it’s either for or against a candidate. People tune them out. I tune them out. I have no interest in watching political ads.”

“They are really the one group that is able to hold a candidate accountable,” he added. “And the lesson that I learned from the last campaign — the way people follow campaigns is much different.”

Hillary ClintonEthan Miller/Getty ImagesFormer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Case in point: During the summer slog of the 2014 cycle, an America Rising tracker took video at a fundraiser and exposed what would become the most infamous comments of Rep. Bruce Braley’s (D-Iowa) campaign for Iowa’s open US Senate seat.

Braley, an attorney, referred to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as “just a farmer who never went to law school” when talking about the potential that Grassley would chair the Senate Judiciary Committee in a GOP-controlled Congress. The comments quickly broke through on the national scene. Braley ended up losing the race to Republican nominee Joni Ernst by a little more than 8 points.

“That would never have made it into the mainstream media but for a group like America Rising,” Zwick told Business Insider. “And I believe that politicians and campaigns are fully exposed — and should be exposed — for who the candidates really are as people, both in a private setting as well as a public setting. That’s happening, and America Rising is the medium that’s allowing that to take place.”

Here’s the America Rising video that helped sink Braley’s campaign:

The key target this time is Clinton, on whom the group has already zeroed in during the lead-up to her eventual run. A quick cursory inbox search revealed that America Rising has blasted out at least 118 emails — both to reporters and supporters — with items about Clinton since June 2013.

Zwick said he expects Clinton and allied outside groups — the so-called super PACs supporting her — to raise upward of $US2 billion over the course of the campaign. 

After Romney ultimately held off running a third time, Zwick became one of the most sought-after people in Republican politics. Romney, he said, tasked him with making sure they could help a plethora of Republican candidacies be “the best they could be.”

One way is facilitating meetings among donors and business leaders with candidates. The other is by taking advantage of the lessons he learned from 2012. And that’s why he told Romney he was joining America Rising.

Said Zwick: “I’m aligning myself with a group or an individual — in this case, America Rising — that I think is going to have the highest and best impact for whoever our nominee is.”

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