Politics & Policy

Campaign Tracking Grows Up

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You are always being watched.

That’s the rather creepy message staffers and party committees must stress to their candidates in an era when one ill-advised comment, even made among friends, can almost single-handedly tank a campaign.

Tracking, the practice of sending a person with a video camera to record the every move of a rival candidate, has been around for several election cycles now. But in recent years it has become ever more regimented, with organizations such as America Rising, on the Republican side, and American Bridge, on the Democratic side, springing up to track, research, and attack candidates on a mass scale, supplementing work already done by each party’s various campaign committees. The practice’s increasing sophistication has, in turn, forced campaigns to become more disciplined, and created a level of transparency and access not previously seen in House and Senate races.

“It’s changed in the fact that it’s as normal as any other part of the campaign,” says a Democratic strategist who previously worked on Senate campaigns. “It’s a normal part of doing business.”

It’s also an absolutely grueling job: Imagine driving all over the place, at all hours, to show up to every single event your target holds, often with the almost certain knowledge that they’ll kick you out. Then imagine making that your life day after day for months on end, a known spy in enemy territory.

It takes only one misstep caught on tape to cause a rival campaign serious problems.

All that hard work doesn’t pay regular dividends — trackers can accumulate months of footage destined to sit in the massive video archives that Rising and Bridge continue to build. But it takes only one misstep caught on tape to cause a rival campaign serious problems.

Perhaps most famously, Virginia Republican George Allen’s 2006 Senate re-election campaign tanked after he called an Indian-American tracker from his rival’s campaign “macaca” and told him, “Welcome to America” on stage at a rally. But there are other examples in the same vein. Representative Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from North Carolina, lost his House seat in 2010 after he physically grabbed a tracker by the wrist and the neck, repeatedly demanding to know who he was.  

In the age of the smart phone, some of the most damaging footage for campaigns has been shot by someone who just happened to be at an event and maybe had no intention of hurting the candidate. Bruce Braley, the 2014 Democratic nominee for Senate in Iowa, was caught on camera disparaging Iowa senator Chuck Grassley — a remark that dogged his ultimately failed campaign. The footage was not taken by a tracker, but America Rising found the video and propagated it far and wide, in a key moment of vindication for the idea of a sweeping, disciplined organization that can both find and disseminate a fatal gaffe.

The coverage has only increased in recent years as tracking becomes a more professional position.

The coverage has only increased in recent years as tracking becomes a more professional position. In the past, Republicans and Democrats familiar with the process say, most trackers were volunteers, or staffers making very little money. But over time, it has become a job that offers the opportunity for advancement. It’s “sort of the new entry-level job for politics,” says Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising. Republican and Democratic campaign operatives note that trackers get to know a particular state’s politics and political personas on a granular level, making them well-suited to move into any number of more prestigious political jobs later on. Both Rising and Bridge say they have staffers who started out as trackers and moved up.

The opportunity for career advancement makes trackers more likely to stick around for the whole cycle, rather than jumping to a less frenetic job, which means they’re more familiar with the candidates or state they’re covering, and more able to recognize a useful moment as it happens. And technology has kept pace: It’s now possible to livestream events back to headquarters as they happen, which means a candidate’s gaffe can be online, in publication, or on television within the hour.

#share#The now-constant presence of trackers has forced campaigns to adapt in kind, marshaling a new level of discipline, driven by the understanding that anything a candidate says or does outside the privacy of his or her home is likely to be recorded. It’s become standard for the Senate and House campaign committees to make sure candidates are trained to deal with the new reality. Tracking is such a normal and ubiquitous part of campaigns that not doing so, as the Democratic strategist who worked on Senate campaigns puts it, would be “malpractice.”

The campaign committees would prefer that candidates not talk to trackers at all, and they’ve developed various tactics for minimizing such interactions.

In an ideal world, the campaign committees would prefer that candidates not talk to trackers at all, and they’ve developed various tactics for minimizing such interactions. One common technique is pretending to be on the phone, which gives the candidate a reason to ignore any questions a tracker shouts. Staffers are trained to ensure that their candidate has a clear path to an event’s exit, so the gauntlet of trackers asking questions can be avoided. If staff are concerned about how their candidate might react to being tracked, sometimes a friendly tracker will be deployed to test him and give him practice, so that adjustments can be made if necessary.

Candidates need to be careful of their physical movements, not just what they say. “You have to watch your body language, because a smirk, or running, that all can be used as b-roll in ads,” National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Katie Martin says. “Keep your hands on your own bodies. Basically, daycare rules.”

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Still, while the committees would prefer no contact — physical or verbal — between trackers and their targets, it’s hard for the two not to become familiar when they see each other at event after event, and they do sometimes develop relationships, for better or for worse.

The tracker who followed Terry Branstad around in his 2010 governor’s race was such a familiar presence that Branstad used to call him out during events and “tell people to smile for the camera,” recounts one Iowa Republican. Late last year, when Branstad became the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, the same tracker showed up to the celebratory open house to congratulate him.

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Iowa Republican operative Cory Crowley recalls that Grassley, his former boss, used to take his tracker out for hamburgers after campaign events. A Republican tracker focusing on Grassley’s opponent, Roxanne Conlin, once picked up a ride from a Conlin staffer when her car broke down on the way to an event.

Other trackers speak of similar courtesies from those they’re tasked with taking down.

#related#American Bridge communications director Ben Ray recounts the South Carolina summer day he spent tracking his Republican target along a long, hot parade route.

“Everybody’s just soaked in sweat,” he remembers. Every so often, the candidate’s wife tried to get his attention, and he ignored her, assuming she was going to give him directions on where he could stand. When he ultimately acknowledged her, she offered him a bottle of water, which he initially declined.

“Anybody with a mother is familiar with the look that came next,” he laughs.                                                                                              

He took the water.

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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