'Trackers' paid to record Cravaack's, Nolan's every moveIt sounds like one of the most boring jobs imaginable: follow and videotape a political candidate for months as he glad-hands and delivers essentially the same campaign message day after day. But occasionally that politician can stumble, and that’s when a tracker hopes to be there.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
It sounds like one of the most boring jobs imaginable: follow and videotape a political candidate for months as he glad-hands and delivers essentially the same campaign message day after day in venue after venue.
But occasionally that politician can stumble, lose his cool or say something controversial. And that’s when a tracker hopes to be there.
Since May, trackers have been shadowing both Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., and his challenger, former Congressman Rick Nolan, running on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket. When either of the 8th District candidates appears in public, you can bet that the Minnesota DFL Party’s Taryn Brown or the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Brady Dube will be there with a video camera trained on their target.
And because trackers are just as interested in what candidates say off the stage as on it, they’ll often poke their cameras into conversations with constituents and the press before and after events.
“Brady does get a little intrusive with his camera at times, but we know he’s just there to do his job. And we have nothing to hide. So what’s the big deal?” said Jim Swiderski, chairman of Nolan’s campaign.
“It’s just a normal part campaigns these days,” Ben Golnik, a campaign adviser for Cravaack, said of trackers.
‘The political world we live in’
Nolan often acknowledges Dube’s presence at events with a little friendly ribbing.
“Most people make friends with their trackers,” said Kate Monson, communications director for the Minnesota DFL Party.
“They have a tracker on Rick, and we have a tracker on Chip. That’s the political world we live in,” she said.
But candidates do draw the line when it comes to private fundraising events, said Mike Misterek, Nolan’s campaign manager.
Often, the party that controls the venue or that has organized an event calls the shots, according to Katie Prill, Midwest Regional Press Secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“When it comes to public events held by other people, they do reserve the right to ask folks to leave,” she said.
Prill said Dube could not be made available for comment for this article.
Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, links the growing use of political trackers to the rising popularity of online social media.
Trackers have been around for years, but Schier said they became a much more common part of the political landscape after what has been dubbed “the macaca moment.” In 2006, Sen. George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, was running for re-election when he singled out his tracker, who was of Indian descent, at a campaign event and referred to him as a “macaca,” a racially charged slur. Allen was expected to win that race, but lost by 10,000 votes.
“That macaca moment went viral and put Allen on the defensive, and he eventually lost the senate race. This is a lesson that has not been lost on campaigns since that time,” Schier said.
Schier also pointed to recent footage of Mitt Romney speaking at a fundraiser and making disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes as “a good example of a tracker strike in 2012.”
Stick to the script
With full knowledge that cameras are constantly trained on their candidates, campaigns have responded.
“Since trackers can make a mark on campaigns, that’s then required campaigns to manage themselves more carefully so as not to embarrass themselves,” Schier said.
A lot of the spontaneity has been squeezed out of political campaigns as a result, he said.
“I think people get less of a sense of the candidates because candidates are being so careful about how they present themselves. It also makes campaigns a lot less fun, because candidates are very very careful about what they say, what they do, who they appear with and so forth,” said Schier.
He said today’s candidates are encouraged to stick to their script and avoid much off-the-cuff interaction, giving the public only a very carefully massaged and arranged picture.
“Structuring time, structuring audiences, structuring public appearances, structuring press availabilities, all of that becomes more important to campaigns,” Schier said.
But Prill of the NRCC contends that in many ways trackers have changed politics for the better. She pointed to the Cravaack vs. Nolan race to illustrate her point.
“You have Congressman Rick Nolan, who the last time that he ran for Congress, trackers weren’t necessarily a concept, let alone the idea of the Internet and sharing videos virally. There was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There was no YouTube when Congressman Nolan was a member. So it’s definitely, for him, a different kind of race,” Prill said.
She said the campaign footage Dube, Nolan’s tracker, has captured has been revealing.
“I think it has been very helpful, because we’ve seen Congressman Nolan on the stump now remembering the good old days when he was in Congress. And he claims they worked so hard. And he’s basically trying to revise his record, and thankfully we’ve been able to capture some of these moments of him having revisionist history about his time in Congress over 30 years ago, when in reality his past statements and his past record show a complete disconnect with what he’s saying now and the Congressman Nolan he’s trying to portray to voters,” Prill said.
Misterek said he generally doesn’t worry about Nolan being taped.
“If Rick is one thing, he’s completely genuine,” he said.
Misterek said the opposition has shown a willingness to take Nolan’s comments out of context and twist his words, but that it hasn’t made the congressman any more fearful of the camera or unscripted discussions with constituents.
In contrast, Misterek said: “Chip has become very guarded in his campaign. His protectors don’t let him too far out of the box.”