Politics

Why Mitt Romney's Most Courted Aide Is Joining An Opposition Research Firm

"I actually think this is how campaigns are going to be won in the future. It's not about creating a 30-second ad and putting it up on Fox. It's about getting information online and making the narrative go viral."

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As Spencer Zwick tried to figure out where to take his talents for the 2016 election, he kept thinking back to a key moment in Mitt Romney's last presidential race.

"I remember distinctly having Gov. Romney become the nominee, and turning that corner only to have Barack Obama standing there, completely fresh, ready to attack us," recalled Zwick, who served as the campaign's finance director. "He was an incumbent president who had not been held accountable in a primary battle. That was a defining moment of the 2012 campaign."

Zwick, a 35-year-old loyalist who has worked for Romney since he was in college, was too polite to identify the most damaging blow the candidate endured at that stage of the race: The emergence of the 47 percent video. But even if Zwick doesn't want to talk about the episode, his surprising new job suggests the experience looms large in his memory.

The heavily-courted architect of the most successful fundraising operation in GOP presidential campaign history, Zwick announced Wednesday he will chair America Rising PAC, the rapidly growing opposition research firm with plans to bury Hillary Clinton beneath a mountain of freshly dug dirt this election cycle. The two-year-old firm specializes in excavating unsavory elements from Democrats' backgrounds and records, as well as capturing unsavory moments on the campaign trail with an army of camera-wielding "trackers." They then peddle their intel to news outlets, or hand them over to Republican campaigns.

In his first interview since announcing the position, Zwick told BuzzFeed News America Rising's mission was more vital than ever in 2016.

"I think Sec. Clinton and her campaign are hopeful that they can not have to deal with a primary, and she can become the nominee without her record being exposed," he said. "This is a person who has shown herself to be untrustworthy and, frankly, incompetent. If the Democrats are going to put her up, which I think they are, we can't let the Republicans run against essentially an incumbent. I think there's plenty of opportunity to make her record clear."

As the gatekeeper of Romney's vast donor network, Zwick has been seen as a hot commodity in Republican campaign circles. Literally minutes after Romney officially bowed out of the 2016 race in January — thus freeing his aides to pursue other jobs — Zwick began receiving phone calls from campaigns who wanted to bring him aboard. He said he thought about signing on with one of the candidates, but ultimately decided he could do more good for the party by spending the primaries prosecuting Clinton.

Zwick will continue to work at his private equity firm, while serving at America Rising on a volunteer basis. He credits Matt Rhoades, whom he worked with on the Romney campaign, with building the firm into a cutting-edge operation that is hastening the demise of the old methods of political communication.

"I actually think this is how campaigns are going to be won in the future," Zwick said. "It's not about creating a 30-second ad and putting it up on Fox. It's about getting information online and making the narrative go viral."

For him, the new model is a no-brainer. Virtually no money is wasted on distribution, or the complex process of buying airtime in different media markets. When America Rising has a scoop or a bit of information it thinks could do damage, its employees simply select the best platform for the given story, and then click send.

"I can't remember the last time I sat down and watched cable news, along with all the ads, uninterrupted," Zwick said. "But on a routine basis, I'm on the Daily Mail app. I'm on the BuzzFeed app. We all get our news so differently now, and as a result, I think the way we choose our candidates is different."

Zwick, whose responsibilities will include stocking the research firm's financial war chest, said his hope is that America Rising will be able to supply the eventual GOP nominee with a trove of damaging material on Clinton. And he doesn't foresee any problem raising the necessary cash to fund the sort of operation they envision.

"If I can think of one unifying message the Republican donor base has right now, it's, 'We want to win,'" he said. "I share that view."

If Clinton has her own "47 percent" moment this cycle, Zwick is determined to ensure that America Rising will be there, cameras in hand.

McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.

Contact McKay Coppins at mckay@buzzfeed.com.

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