They’re everywhere. Wherever there’s a candidate comparing immigrants to animals, they’ll be there. Wherever a senator flings out an archaic racial slur, or a congressman from the Midwest insults farmers, trackers will be there.
Hundreds of (mostly younger) men and women, armed with little more than a portable camera, have the awkward job of spending every waking hour filming politicians from the other side of the political aisle. Their hope: catch those people saying something dumb, offensive or off-message so it can then be used against them.
The most famous incident involving a tracker came in 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) had his reelection campaign derailed after being caught on film referring to a tracker affiliated with his opponent, Jim Webb, as “macaca.” Since then, Democrats and Republicans alike have invested millions of dollars in following candidates from county fairs to canoe rides to catch gaffes and create narratives.
Today, no one is more responsible for the growth in the industry than American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC that employs 44 trackers in 41 states. The group has an annual budget approaching $18 million, and its trackers have gone to more than 10,000 events, traveled almost 760,000 miles and logged more than 6,600 hours of footage.
“Sometimes you get someone saying they are adamantly opposed to minimum wage, and then they’ll say it should be raised,” American Bridge President Brad Woodhouse says in an interview from his D.C. office. “Then we can mash it together and say, ‘You’re full of s---.’ But plenty of times we go film events and they are nothing burgers.”
More often than not, that’s the case. Woodhouse says that because of trackers, candidates have “become more disciplined” and “more tightly controlling of the events they have and who has access to them.”
This means the job often entails driving for hours just to be turned away at a private event. Or worse — getting there and hearing literally the same thing they’ve recorded dozens of times. I asked Kelli Farr, Bridge’s vice president in charge of tracking, if I could spend some time with one of these dedicated individuals. The answer was a resounding no.
“Their job is not to make the news but to film it,” she says.
Well, what about if I tried tracking them?
“Don’t track the trackers,” she says. “Or we’ll have them track you back.”
There are two trackers at Ed Gillespie’s first event of the day here in Eden Center in Falls Church, Va. One of them is from American Bridge, and he holds his camcorder above the crowd using a skinny tripod. There’s another from the Democratic Party of Virginia armed with a Flip cam. The Republican candidate for Senate has come to a Vietnamese deli to speak to Vietnamese business leaders. He talks about how his parents were immigrants from Ireland, how he once worked as a Senate garage parking attendant and how we need to “ease the squeeze” on American businesses. I ask one of the trackers how often he has heard this speech.
“Probably about 150 times,” he says, keeping his Flip cam focused on Gillespie and clutching a banh mi sandwich in his other hand. “I could recite it to you if you’d like.”
I ask if he likes his job.
“Not especially,” he says, his face quickly going red. “This is off the record.” (I didn’t agree to this, but I said I wouldn’t use his name.)
Gillespie finishes his speech and breezes out of the restaurant, giving a familial hello to the tracker.
“He’s a nice guy. It’s all professional,” the tracker says. “You can’t quote that.”
An odd relationship forms between the supposed adversaries when they spend this much time together. Trackers start to know their candidates’ tics, the difference between their forced and genuine smiles, their various catchphrases. (Imagine listening to Gillespie say “ease the squeeze” hundreds of times without giggling.) Sometimes, it even feels as if they like each other. Members of American Bridge speak adoringly of former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, a Republican.
“Pawlenty is the gold standard,” Farr says back at Bridge headquarters. “He said goodbye to our tracker the day he announced he was no longer running and said, ‘I hope you go great places after this.’ ”
Gillespie’s staff understands the plight of the tracker. His communications director, Paul Logan, and his body man, Kyle McColgan, both once held the job.
“Yeah, it’s kind of strange,” McColgan says. “You know that your greatest moment will be that person’s worst moment.” Trackers, and their media-monitoring brethren, have been responsible for spreading the news about then-Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape,” Rep. Steve King’s comparison of illegal immigrants to hunting dogs and Rep. Bruce Braley’s comment about Sen. Charles E. Grassley being just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
In other words, McColgan appreciates the jobs trackers do, but that doesn’t mean he won’t do his part to keep his boss from getting hurt by them.
“Are you going to have him kicked out?” Garrett Hawkins, Gillespie’s deputy communications director, whispers to McColgan.
“Yeah,” McColgan says, walking through the crowd of senior citizens here at the Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn. They’re talking about the Bridge tracker, who drove 40 minutes from Eden Center, who is currently loping up the stairs in his green shirt, red shoes and multiple-day stubble.
Before he can fully set up, a spokeswoman for Ashby Ponds pulls him aside. She tells him this is a private event for credentialed media only. He pulls out a badge that says “Media” on it.
“Are you not affiliated with the Democratic Party of Virginia at all?” she asks.
“No, I’m not,” he says. He gives his name, Joe Gallant, and says that he works for Bridge and that it is a “media company based in D.C.”
“The only way I can make an exception is if you were to swear under oath that you won’t record,” she says. He says he understands, but he can’t do his job without recording.
“Well, it’s not the first event I’ve been kicked out of,” he says, leaving with the same pleasant smile he came in with. “And it won’t be the last.”
Gillespie ends his day in a George Mason classroom in Arlington, giving a speech about foreign policy. Gallant arrives late and has to ask Hawkins and McColgan if they’ll let him in.
“I’m not going to physically keep you from going in,” Hawkins says, laughing. Gallant takes a seat and puts his camera on a desk aimed at Gillespie and starts checking his e-mail on his phone.
After Gillespie finishes his speech, I ask the candidate about what it’s like to have a tracker follow him around everywhere he goes. Like a good politician, he has a speech rehearsed about how it doesn’t affect what he says but that he worries about the regular people.
“I do tend to give a heads-up to people — you know, there’s a Democratic video tracker here,” he says. “Because I have people come up to me with concerns about their taxes, their health care. They tell me their diseases they have and are worried about their coverage because of Obama. These folks would put that stuff up on a Web site somewhere.”
Gallant films the exchange until he is asked to get out of the elevator.