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When Politicians Slip, Video Trackers Are There

In politics, video tracking has become normal. And it's a growth industry. There are trackers working for campaigns, political parties and, increasingly, political action committees.
In politics, video tracking has become normal. And it's a growth industry. There are trackers working for campaigns, political parties and, increasingly, political action committees.

U.S. election campaigns have become gaffe-centric. Candidates live in fear of letting slip that sentence, or half-sentence, that makes the opposition's day.

Take a town hall appearance earlier this month by Republican Rep. Allen West of Foridla.

During the meeting, the Tea Party-affiliated legislator — who serves Florida's 22nd Congressional District but is seeking re-election in its redrawn and more Republican-leaning 18th District — was asked by an attendee, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists or international socialists?"

Some in the audience laughed at the question. West, however, responded: "No, that's a good question. I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party."

The remark was reported on local news sites. But what gave it legs — and gleeful play on left-leaning national sites such as the Huffington Post — was the fact that it was caught on video.

Political Paparazzi

Catching those moments is the job of the video trackers. They're usually young people, fresh out of college, looking for a way into politics.

For every gaffe that goes viral, the trackers record hundreds of hours — maybe thousands — of pure tedium.

In a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the strange business of video tracking, Jessie Williams, a tracker f or the Democrats, approaches Adam Hasner, a Republican running for Congress in Florida, and says: "Hi. Before you go inside — can you answer a couple questions for me?"

"Yeah. Can I get dressed first?" the former Florida state legislator asks as the video tracker captures him adjusting his suit and cuffs in a parking lot.

The videographer, who says in another video posted on her YouTube channel that she works for the Democrats, then follows the candidate as he crosses the parking lot to an event.

What's remarkable about the exchange is how civil it is. Both videographer and politician know that she's there to catch him on camera saying something dumb, but they treat this moment like just another day at the office.

They chat about the weather, golf and whether she's getting paid enough.

The New Norm

In politics, video tracking has become normal. And it's a growth industry. There are trackers working for campaigns, political parties and, increasingly, political action committees.

One pro-Democratic PAC, "American Bridge 21st Century," has 17 trackers deployed to key congressional races around the country. Because federal law bars PACs from coordinating with campaigns, you'll sometimes see multiple trackers at the same event. And even though they're on the same side, they're not supposed to talk to each other.

They are also under strict orders not to talk to reporters.

Former tracker Sara DuBois worked for a left-leaning organization called Progressive Media in 2008. She said the job is stressful.

"You want to make sure you don't go to [an] event and forget to turn the camera on," said DuBois.

There's a lot to juggle. The tracker has to be part detective, making sure not to miss even small, poorly advertised public appearances in out-of-the-way places. The driving can be nonstop. When the tracker finally arrives at an event, a candidate's supporters may turn hostile.

DuBois said the tracker's best strategy is to be transparent, at least up to a point.

"Transparency, without overdivulging," said DuBois. "I mean, you don't want to go in and say, 'Hi, I'm here to destroy you; where do I stand?' "

The Right To Record

The targeted campaigns usually tolerate the trackers, but they rarely offer them front-row seating.

Occasionally, the trackers face eviction.

At an outdoor event featuring West in 2010, a Democratic tracker caught the attention of a group of West supporters, dressed in motorcycle gear, who created a physical barrier and ordered the tracker to leave.

Sometimes, tracker evictions become exercises in the theater of the absurd.

Last summer, Washington state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna was speaking to a small meeting of young Republicans. In the midst of his talk, he turned to a Democratic video tracker attending the event and asked him to turn off his camera. When the tracker refused to do so, the Young Republicans called 911.

The tracker's video is posted on YouTube under the title "Rob McKenna Camera Shy @ King County Young Republicans."

DuBois says trackers are trained to point out their legal right to record at public events. So eviction arguments often pivot on whether the event is public or private.

Many organizations hosting candidates are now declaring their meetings private, or "closed press," in advance, in anticipation of trackers. But that can deprive candidates of coverage by the news media.

Keep It Rolling

DuBois says trackers should never engage in a physical fight. After all, there's a better strategy.

"No matter what, you keep the camera on. ... The last thing [ campaign staff] want is to become the story by sort of aggressively turning away a tracker."

There are different kinds of video tracking. Some organizations are building libraries of everything said by opposing candidates, cataloging hours of video for future reference.

Trackers' strategy borrows phrases from sports lingo, operating "man to man" or using a "zone" strategy. Then there's the more aggressive subspecialty of tracking known as "bird-dogging."

In one video posted on YouTube, called "Tester doesn't know what the national debt is," a bird-dogger hides behind a pillar outside Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, then jumps out at Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., firing off a series of loaded questions.

He then trails the senator, following him inside the train station, where even a news organization cannot film without prior permission from the station's press department.

Tester does not stop to chat, and that's not the point. The senator is locked in a tough re-election fight, and images of him fleeing the camera may be useful for attack ads later this year.

Political Implications

When confronted by a bird-dogger, the challenge for a candidate is to walk away as swiftly as possible without looking guilty.

And no matter what, a politician should never take a swipe at a tracker while the camera is rolling.

Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina grabbed the arm of a videographer, a scene later remixed as an effective attack ad that contributed to his election loss in 2010.

Video tracking has even become a feature of small-budget races for state legislatures.

Washington Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner said he and his GOP colleagues joke about trackers, imagining the voiceover for the ads that will be made from the videos.

"We sometimes say the little voice to each other, you know, 'Sen. Joe Fain doesn't like puppy dogs!' " Baumgartner said.

The video tracking of Baumgartner intensified last fall, after he announced a run for the U.S. Senate.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., an apparent bird-dogger confronted him as he got out of a cab. Back home, he said trackers have recorded him during legislative committee meetings in Olympia, then driven four hours to catch him at a campaign event across the state. He recently complained to the state Democrats that a tracker had followed his wife around a dark parking lot outside a political event.

The cameras also remind candidates not to deviate from their scripts. With the camera around, Baumgartner said, off-the-cuff humor becomes a big risk.

"You do get a temptation sometimes to say something a little ironic, but you know it's going to get taken out of context. And when you're on the campaign trail, jokes taken out of context can do a lot of damage," said Baumgartner.

Always On

This may be the most lamentable effect of all the video tracking, says political consultant Brian Crowley. During his years as a reporter, he learned the value of sometimes putting his notebook away — to let the candidate relax.

But now, he says, candidates rarely have that luxury.

"When you hear complaints that a candidate X, Y or Z is too stiff, I think it's just that they're afraid," said Crowley.

DuBois, the former video tracker, said candidates shouldn't worry so much about gaffes.

"It's not the fact that we have a camera on them and that we have it recorded that something sticks and changes everything," said DuBois. "If they're being candid and consistent and their policies are something people will support, then I think having cameras there isn't something that will change it."

Not that anyone really has a choice in the matter. With video cameras now in every pocket, politicians are foolish not to assume they're being recorded, all the time, almost anywhere. Just like everybody else.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.