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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Left-leaning websites had a field day earlier this month with a video. It's of Republican Congressman Allen West speaking at a public meeting in Florida.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.
SIEGEL: Seventy-eight to 81 Democrats in Congress are communists, he believes. West has been defending that remark ever since. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the scene was recorded by a video tracker, one of a legion of political operatives trying to catch opposing candidates saying something they'll regret.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: For every snippet of video that goes viral, video trackers record hundreds of hours of pure tedium, stump speeches, town halls, chit-chats in parking lots.
JESSIE WILLIAMS: Mr. Hasner.
ADAM HASNER: Hey.
KASTE: This is tracker footage of Adam Hasner, a Republican running for Congress in Florida. The tracker, a young woman working for the Democrats, approaches him by his car as he preps for an event.
WILLIAMS: Before you go inside, can you answer a couple of questions for me?
HASNER: Yeah. Can I get dressed first?
WILLIAMS: Sure. I won't look.
KASTE: Both of them are well aware of the fact that she's here in hopes of catching him on camera saying something dumb, and yet the whole exchange is remarkably cordial. They start chatting as if it's just another day at the office.
HASNER: So how are you enjoying Florida?
WILLIAMS: I'm liking it. I've been here for a few months, though.
HASNER: Oh. Are you?
KASTE: Hasner even holds the door open for the camera as it follows him. In American politics, video tracking has now become normal. There are trackers working for the campaigns, for the parties and, increasingly, for political action committees.
One pro-Democratic PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, has 17 trackers deployed to key congressional races around the country. In 2008, Sara DuBois was a tracker for a group called Progressive Media. She says, as jobs go, it can be pretty nerve-wracking.
SARA DUBOIS: Well, the first thing is you want to make sure that you don't go to this event and forget to turn the camera on.
KASTE: She says things work best when trackers don't try to play games. They should admit up front that they're working for the enemy camp. The key, she says, is transparency.
DUBOIS: Transparency without over-divulging. I mean, you don't want to go in and say, hi. I'm here to destroy you. Where do I stand?
KASTE: The targeted campaigns usually tolerate the trackers, though they don't exactly offer them front row seats. But sometimes, trackers face eviction. DuBois says she was taught to point out her right to record at public events. But she says it's also important not to put up a physical fight because there's a better strategy.
DUBOIS: No matter what, you keep the camera on. So, if you are being turned away, you film that process. The last thing that they want is to become the story by, you know, sort of aggressively turning away a tracker.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know you're not wanted here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're going to make it worse.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right. You guys made that clear.
KASTE: This is the kind of scene DuBois is talking about. In 2010, at an outdoor political rally in Florida, a Democratic tracker kept the camera going as he was confronted by what you might call a group of motorcycle enthusiasts.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get your hands off (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is a free place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah? And we're free to stand here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. Fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're free to stand here.
KASTE: There are different kinds of video tracking. Some organizations are mainly building libraries of everything said by the opposing candidates. It's all catalogued for future reference. There are trackers focused on public events. Some of them work man-to-man. Others have what they call a zone strategy.
And then there is the more daring, subspecialty of tracking that's known as bird-dogging. For instance, this guy. As the video starts, he's actually hiding behind a pillar waiting for the perfect moment to jump out at Democratic Senator Jon Tester.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Senator Tester, how are you today, sir? You doing well? Sir, you know what the national debt is? Do you?
KASTE: The whole point of this is to produce unflattering images of the politician fleeing the camera. For the candidate, the challenge is to walk away as swiftly as possible without looking guilty. And, no matter what, the candidate should never do what Democrat Bob Etheridge did two years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Do you fully support the Obama agenda?
BOB ETHERIDGE: Who are you? Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Whoa.
ETHERIDGE: Who are you?
KASTE: Etheridge takes a swipe at the camera, then grabs the arm of one of the young men. He later apologized, claiming a long day, but the tape was already destined for remix as an attack ad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Whoa.
ETHERIDGE: Who are you?
ABBY: I'm Abby.
ETHERIDGE: I don't know who you are.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Where Bob Etheridge's constituents.
KASTE: Etheridge was not re-elected. When the video trackers appear, Michael Baumgartner says he and his fellow politicians can't help but imagine the eventual attack ad.
SENATOR MICHAEL BAUMGARTNER: We sometimes say the little voice to each other, you know, Senator Joe Paine doesn't like puppy dogs.
KASTE: Baumgartner is a legislator in Washington state and he says he's seen video tracking on state level campaigns, but when he launched a run for the U.S. Senate last fall, the cameras were suddenly everywhere. On a trip to D.C., bird-doggers popped up as he got out of a taxi cab. And back home, he says a tracker followed his wife around a dark parking lot. He says there ought to be some limits.
BAUMGARTNER: Videotape the candidate, but don't harass their family members.
KASTE: The cameras also constantly remind the candidates to stay on message. For instance, Baumgartner says it's just not a good idea to engage in off-the-cuff humor.
BAUMGARTNER: 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, you know, jokes taken out of context oftentimes do a lot of damage.
KASTE: And that may be video tracking's most lamentable effect, says political consultant Brian Crowley. During his years as a reporter, he says he learned the value of sometimes putting his notebook away to let the candidate relax.
BRIAN CROWLEY: Now, a candidate never feels like he's not only not being watched by somebody holding a notebook, but not being watched by somebody carrying an iPhone. And sometimes, I think, when you hear complaints that candidate X, Y or Z is too stiff, I think, sometimes, they're just afraid.
KASTE: Former video tracker Sara DuBois says she understands this, but she also says candidates should not worry so much about gaffs. A dumb remark may get play on the Internet, she says, but that by itself won't sink a campaign.
DUBOIS: It's not the fact that we have a camera on them and that we have it recorded that something sticks or changes everything. So, if they're being candid and consistent and their policies are something that people support, then having the camera there, I don't think, will change it.
KASTE: Not that anybody 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.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.