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Citizens United and the rise of the campaign tracker


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    Will Urquhart capturing video at a Mitt Romney campaign event in Iowa.

    - John Pemble

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    Will Urquhart taking video.

    - John Pemble

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    Urquhart takes notes at a Romney event.

    - John Pemble

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    Urquhart dives deep into a crowd to continue tracking Romney.

    - John Pemble

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    Outside at his car, Will Urquhart gets his footage ready to send back to American Bridge.

    - John Pemble

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    Will Urquhart.

    - John Pemble

I know they say this every four years, but this time, it might actually be true. That this presidential election is different. That this is the one that's gonna change everything.

Although, it's entirely possible that the conventional wisdom about why it's different is wrong. That it's actually different in part because of this one guy and people like him. His name is Will Urquhart.

"I came here because part of my job is to film -- if possible -- everything that Mitt Romney does," says Urquhart. "Every handshake, every word that comes out of his mouth when he's in Iowa -- him and his surrogates."

Urquhart's 28, and he's been out on the campaign trail since May 2011. And capturing every word that comes out of Mitt Romney's mouth -- that's pretty much his whole job description.

"We want to know what he is saying -- both good and bad --  and then, of course, we want to find anytime that he says something that is...contradictory." he says.

Will's what you call a campaign tracker. He and hundreds of other trackers just like him -- working for both parties -- follow candidates where ever they go, hoping for that gaffe, that unscripted moment, anything that can be used in an ad or a YouTube video.

Even if you've never heard of trackers, chances are, you know one example. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) back in 2006, caught on tape calling one of the Democratic trackers shadowing him a slur: "macaca."

That "macaca" comment was a campaign tracker's dream. And it took Allen right out of that race.

In this election, you can't turn around without hearing what trackers do in campaign ads on both sides.

There's a huge amount of new money pouring into this campaign. It's a direct result of the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the case that said companies and unions can spend essentially as much as they want on politics.

I spent a good part of the summer working on a project with Frontline called "Big Sky, Big Money," trying to figure out what all that money looks like in this election.

Part of what that money looks like is the War Room of a Democratic super PAC I visited called American Bridge 21st Century -- it's the one that tracker Will Urquhart works for. It kind of looks like those shots of the control rooms you see behind network anchors on TV: lots of people busily working in front of dozens of oversized monitors.

"Most of the people in this room are researchers," says American Bridge president Rodell Mollineau. "They know what they're looking for, and they are pretty much uncovering things about candidates that those candidates would rather the American people not know."

Mollineau says American Bridge is not your typical super PAC. It's only been around since November 2010, having come about in the post-Citizens United super PAC boom. It's smaller than some of the other super PACs out there; it's raised about $8.5 million since June.

But as Mollineau told me, it's powerful because of what it does.

"This is mostly public information, you just need to know where to look for it," he says. "What you do is you put together a political history -- every vote that they've ever taken, every political statement they had made; any kind of contradictions that you might find."

Staffers pore over hundreds of hours of video, researching and tracking Republican candidates. They scroll back and forth, switching between monitors until they find what they're looking for.

There is a bit of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to this whole thing if you think about it: that just by observing something -- tracking it -- you change it.

"These are the people who come up with the research that you're going to find in the direct mail piece, in the 30-second ad, in the online ad," says Mollineau. "That happens here."

Republican congressional staffer James Carstensen explains.

"I think for people that are advising candidates, it is a nightmare," Carstensen says. "Where it becomes a bad thing in the era of "gotcha" politics that's ever evolving and increasing, is taking two words of a speech and turning it into an attack ad. And that's where it makes any campaign adviser or official or media guy have their hair grey up and lose it overnight."

Gotcha politics isn't the only criticism that trackers get. More than four dozen members of the House -- from both sides of the aisle -- complained publicly this summer that trackers felt more like stalkers.

Back at the rally in Des Moines, tracker Will Urquhart is still recording, following the candidate along the rope line. Scuffling with campaign staffers, too.

And then goes back to his car.

"So now I am done with my debrief," he says. "I am going to turn my phone on as a modem from my computer so I can submit it so I don't have to run to Starbucks or another coffee shop with Internet."

From his front seat, Will sends his report and his video back to American Bridge, back to that War Room we were in earlier. Some technical glitches aside, it's all uploaded in less than an hour. Then American Bridge dumps everything into a searchable database. If it's worthy, it'll go on their website or on YouTube or out to the media.

And eventually in an ad or a news story or a stump speech -- out to you.


Our collaboration with Frontline about the effects of hidden money on American politics, comes on television tonight as a documentary called "Big Sky, Big Money," airing on PBS.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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