This episode follows Josh and Matt Santos as they begin to campaign for the presidency. The episode is set in New Hampshire and tells the story of the early struggles of the Santos campaign: they have little money and organization, and they struggle to get endorsements and recognition. The focus is on Josh and Santos getting to know each other and the conflicts they have at the early stages of their relationship. The title comes from one of the points that Josh and Santos initially disagree about: doing opposition research on their opponents. At the end, Josh presents Santos with a packet of opposition research on Santos, which his team needs so that they know what they're up against.
"Opposition Research" marks a turning point for The West Wing. It is the first episode that focuses entirely on Matt Santos's campaign for president, and it is the first that happens entirely outside of the White House.note (There is one scene where President Bartlet calls Josh, so there are technically a couple of shots in the White House.) From this point on, the show begins to shift its focus to the Santos campaign: starting with this episode (no. 11 in the season), the Santos episodes start to alternate with the White-House ones, and by episode 16 they're spending more time with the campaign than at the White House. Season 7 focuses almost completely on the Santos campaign.
We see an SUV driving down a snowy rural area in what turns out to be New Hampshire. We hear Santos's voice say, "I want this to be a campaign of ideas," and Josh says, "I think you missed a turn." Santos wants to talk about education and campaign finance reform; Josh is focused on the map. They continue to talk; Santos goes on about ideas he has and Josh tries to get them to where they're going. There's a metaphor there somewhere.
Santos suggests a kickoff speech on education; Josh details why education is "stuck in the mud." Josh then explains:
They get to where they're going: Santos's New Hampshire campaign headquarters, a storefront in a town area. The headquarters has a crude cardboard sign out front that has "Matt Santos for President" written in magic marker. They look dismayed when they see it, but Santos jokes, "I guess we're using my name after all."
Inside, Josh and Santos greet Rhonda and Ned from Santos's Congressional staff. They discuss some education policy details, but Josh reminds Santos that they're here to introduce him and "hone a narrative." Josh finds out that their headquarters is an old life-raft store, makes jokes, and they have some coffee and toast the "start of this crazy roller-coaster ride"
The next scene is at the Litchfield Town Dump, apparently a traditional stop for candidates. Matt introduces himself to a man at the dump.
Smash to theme music and credits.
At the town dump, Santos is seen helping people with their trash and recycling, introducing himself as a candidate for president. Josh is talking about Santos with Rhonda, and has some ideas on how to run things. He wants him to be called "The Congressman," because it's more dignified than "Matt." Santos apparently is into policy, and Josh wants to reign that in, especially in New Hampshire. Santos apparently has a habit of surprising his staff with policy announcements. Josh leaves for a meeting in a car with a volunteer.
Josh is talking to Toby on the phone in another car. He's a little condescending about the volunteer who's driving him around. He actually asks Toby what he would think about a big education speech; Toby also thinks it's a bad idea. Toby asks Josh:
After a stop at the dry cleaners (for the volunteer driver's mom), Josh appears in a state senator's office. They discuss things, and Josh notices the senator has a Bob Russell letter opener and cup holders. Josh wants the senator to meet with Santos, but the senator has qualms—one being that Josh is running Santos against Bartlet's own vice president—and Russell and Hoynes both donated to his campaign. He says, "Money equals viability, and from what I can tell, your boy has neither."
Next, Josh arrives at the house of some top-tier activists in Nashua, inside of which Santos has been for a while. Ned tells Josh that Will Bailey wants to meet with him; Josh relates what happened with three state legislators, all of whom want to know why he's running Santos against Jed Bartlet's own Vice President. Ned suggests that it might be helpful if Doug Weston, Bartlet's son-in-law, endorsed Santos, so Josh tells him to arrange a meeting with Lizzie Bartlet, Doug's wife and the President's daughter.
Josh talks to the New York Times reporter who's there. They chat, and the reporter says that he's hearing some things out of Houston (Santos's home town); he says that Josh should already know those things.
Josh goes in. The two activists know Josh because they ran that district for Bartlet both times. Josh talks about some of Santos's credentials, but Santos talks about some of his ideas on education, which the activists don't like. Josh confronts him outside about that. Josh says that they want to know who he is, and get to like him; Matt compares that to a beauty contest. Josh is also frustrated that Santos is paying attention to small details and that he doesn't want to do a Latino-community based fundraiser.
Josh brings up opposition research (referring to "a larger conversation"), to which which Santos clearly says no. Santos goes back in, leaving Josh frustrated.
Next, Josh arrives at Russell's New Hampshire headquarters. He and a staffer make some jokes about the cardboard cutouts of Russell:
Josh goes to see Will in his office. Will appears and asks if he can bring in an aide for the meeting, to which Josh agrees. Donna is the aide, and the meeting catches them both off guard. Will then asks Josh if he'll agree to a clean primary campaign, then uses some language to try to trap Josh into making a commitment. Josh doesn't quite fall for it, but will is pretty forceful. Josh and Donna walk down the hall together as he's leaving, and agree not to "make this a thing."
Josh and Santos have another conversation where Josh talks about strategy and Santos chafes at the slow pace. Josh reminds Santos about the "conversation."
Liz Bartlet stops by to see Josh. They discuss her husband's primary and his frustrations. Josh asks her to have her husband do a photo op with Santos, since seeing Bartlet's son in law with a candidate other than the Vice President Russell might help open things up. Josh shows his idealistic side a little bit in his appeal to he, repeating a bit of Santo's earlier complaint. Liz agrees to the photo op.
Josh shows up to meet Santos at a diner. He finds out that Santos has shared his education plan with someone who put it out publicly.
Josh also mentions that Santos was quoted as saying something negative about the New Hampshire primary eight years ago ("New Hampshire is as diverse as a Mayflower reunion"); Santos can't deny it. He meets with Doug (Liz's husband) who immediately confronts him about that.
Inside the diner, Santos is confronted by a reporter about the primary quote, and Doug piles on. Santos is a bit defiant.
Santos and Josh get back to the hotel (a comically rustic one) and have an uncomfortable conversation about the primary. It's the same topic as the first one, Santos has big ideas and Josh knows how to work the political system. Santos doesn't want to eat his words or back off of the big ideas. Josh raises his voice and scolds Santos a bit. Santos leaves angry.
Josh meets with Joey Lucas (and her interpreter). She tells him that Santos is "within the margin of error." When josh asks of what, she says, "of having any support at all." They discuss the Santos campaign.
Joey hands Josh "the first of the opposition research" he apparently had asked her for.
Josh and Santos arrive at a retirement home where Josh wants Santos to take back his comment about New Hampshire. They are going to meet with the state's oldest resident. They go in and there's no crowd because the oldest resident died.
Josh talks to the reporter from the Post, who finally tells him that they're not interested in Santos, but in Josh—why he's running Santos against Russell, splitting the field, and so on. He suggests that Josh is doing it to help Hoynes, asking "Why else would Russell's people be worried about you?"
Josh goes back to Russell headquarters to confront Will. He accuses Will of leaking the primary quote, and of trotting Donna out to guilt him. Will denies all of it. He says Josh's campaign doesn't make sense. Josh is the best political mind in the party after Leo and will be working for Russell eventually, so why is he going on the record against them?
Matt's meeting with some people, and Donna comes up to meet Josh, who's talking with Rhonna. Josh tells her she should be with him and asks her what "make work job" they have her doing. "Media targeting for the northeast and Pacific northwest," as it turns out. Josh is a little cowed. Some of Russell's staffers then show up with huge trays full of letters urging the DNC to protect the New Hampshire primaries.
Back at the office, Josh has received a cardboard cutout of Russell, on which he draws a mustache. He gets a phone call from a "Mr. Potus."
Bartlet is on the phone. He apologizes for his son-in-law, and asserts that he's not for Russellhe wants a vigorous primary. He gives Josh some numbers and advice about education reform that should really help Santos. Josh writes them down and then burns them.
In the next scene, Josh goes outside to talk to Santos, who confronts him about the opposition research. Josh tells him it was on himto figure out what their weaknesses are. They argue.
Back at Santos' campaign headquarters, Rhonna tells Josh that the other campaigns have all put out education plans, when they weren't even talking about that a week ago.
Liz Bartlet shows up again and gives Josh a $2,000 check (the legal limit). He's delighted that a member of the Bartlet family went on record with a contribution. He gives her some advice for Doug in return.
Josh and Santos pulls up to another house. They start to have another argument. Matt walks off a bit. Josh apologizes for what he asked about his brother earlier. They chat. The following exchange sums us the episode:
They look at each other meaningfully and walk toward the house. Santos gives his approval to the opposition research. They go in and Matt starts talking to people. There are a lot more people than expected. Matt starts to give his speech as the episode fades out.
This episode contains examples of!!
- Decoy Protagonist - Of a sort. The press believes that Josh is using Matt this way, to help Hoynes by cutting into Russell's slice of the pie going into the primaries.
- Did You Actually Believe...? - Tragic example. Matt doesn't believe he's going make it to the nomination, let alone the inauguration, thus his disinterest in what he sees as dirty or dishonest campaigning. He's not planning on winning, just getting his education plan in the news before he retires from national politics.
- Meaningful Background Event - Bob Russell's campaign offices are full of cardboard standees of him (that will continue to appear in the background throughout the campaign storyline). The first ones we see are set up to appear as though they're guarding Will's door, keeping Josh from talking to him, but as the scene progresses it becomes clear that there's so many of them so that in every shot, Bob Russell is staring into the camera from over the characters' shoulders.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids! - Josh starts out teaching Santos this lesson. Over time, as Santos picks up momentum, he begins teaching Josh that Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!.
- Wham Episode - As of this episode, the series begins to change from being about running the White House to being about winning it.
- Wham LineSantos: We're lucky if we have two months with this! I don't want to waste it shaking hands!
- What the Hell, Hero? - Josh lays into Santos for not telling him that he was only planning to run a lame-duck campaign to get some headlines about education reform before retiring, pointing out that he gave up his entire life to get Santos into the race.