For those who are vaguely familiar with candidate tracking, odds are they heard about it because of the infamous “macaca” incident from George Allen in 2006, when Allen directed a racial slur towards the young tracker who was filming him at a public event on the campaign trail. With that one video -- one word in fact -– the course of the race was drastically altered.
That type of situation remains the holy grail of candidate tracking, to catch that moment of complacency or foolishness when a candidate says something they probably shouldn’t have. Sometimes, it isn’t even a matter of being somewhere other people aren’t, but noticing something other people missed, as was the case when one of my colleagues caught Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments on a local TV program.
But having covered more than 200 congressional and presidential events over the last 15 months for American Bridge, I can assure you those moments are few and far between. The reality of a tracker’s day-to-day life is about meticulously documenting and archiving everything a candidate says on the campaign trail. A catastrophic gaffe like Allen’s is rare, but more common is someone who attempts to change their positions depending on who they’re speaking to, or moderates their stances over the course of the campaign. There’s no better way to show voters that a candidate is being dishonest than to roll the video tape of the candidate in their own words.
One thing I’ve learned is that you truly never know when a seemingly innocuous statement will eventually emerge as a major issue. In July 2011, I recorded an event in South Carolina with Michele Bachmann. During the rally, Bachmann included a new talking point in her stump speech, claiming that 47 percent of Americans paid no taxes and suggested that everyone should pay something. At the time, Bachmann’s comments attracted some attention from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. But more than a year later, that 47 percent talking point from the GOP is back in the news because of Mitt Romney. It’s a tracker’s job to make sure we have it on tape, so that four weeks, or four months, or four years from now, if we need it, we have it.
In order to collect all of a candidate’s statements on camera means we spend a lot of time driving, about as much time waiting around, and, on good days, a solid amount of time furiously typing up a transcript of what a candidate just said. In that way, a tracker’s job is similar to how it’s been in previous election cycles. But in one way, it’s vastly different -- technology.
For starters, we’re recording on high-definition cameras. That means that if someone wants to put the footage we shoot in a TV ad, it’s high-quality video instead of grainy cell phone footage. Then, when something noteworthy happens, we can do in hours what used to take days. Just a few years ago, a tracker would have to actually physically mail their tapes back to headquarters.
In May, when I recorded Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King comparing immigrants to dogs at a town hall meeting, I was able to use my phone as a modem to upload the footage as I was driving. The clip was already on YouTube by the time both Rep. King and I got to the next event.
Some people think that trackers are there to make a scene or disrupt an event, but nothing could be farther from the truth. We are just trying to record what a candidate says for posterity. Not everyone can make it to every political rally, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to see what a candidate is telling the people who are there.
If a candidate doesn’t have anything to hide, then they don’t have anything to fear from the presence of a tracker.