December 16, 2012

Trackers now videotape politicians year-round

The increasingly common practice, even outside of campaign season, angers Gov. LePage and others.

By GLENN ADAMS The Associated Press

AUGUSTA - As Gov. Paul LePage addressed the newly elected Legislature in early December, his frustration with trackers, the video camera-toting operatives who follow politicians around, boiled over into a brief diatribe that set the session off to a sour start.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to meet with Democratic legislative leaders until he is no longer being followed by a tracker has brought attention to the practice employed by Republicans and Democrats and political action committees.

2012 Associated Press File Photo

In a setting usually reserved for rhetoric about bipartisanship and cooperation, LePage, a Republican, sarcastically thanked Democrats for hiring "my own paparazzi," surprising some legislators and outraging others.

Trackers have become a staple of American elections over the past few years, and politicians have been wrestling with this new reality. Their advisers issue constant warnings for them to watch what they say, mindful of the fallout that an inartful comment caught on video can bring.

But now, as in the case of Le-Page, who doesn't face re-election for two more years, these trackers are turning up even when it's not an election year to catch candidates who slips verbally, in hopes of using the flub against them in the future.

"It's like forcing a turnover in the preseason and being able to use it in the postseason," said John Rowley, a Democratic consultant based in Nashville, Tenn.

Trackers are hired by both political parties, candidates, political action committees and now so-called super PACs, said Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a bipartisan group based in Virginia. "It's a very serious enterprise."


Tracking can also be a strong hedge against misstatements in political ads that pare down the candidate's recorded comments and reshape them to mislead voters.

That practice has forced parties and campaigns in many cases to track their own candidates to make sure remarks can be explained with their full context.

"It's less about 'gotcha' and more about the credibility of the political ads," said Rowley.

Year-round tracking of elected officials who are likely to become candidates, well outside campaign season, is a growing trend, said Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC that specializes in opposition research and tracking.

Tracking helps to hold those officials accountable if they make contradictory public statements, said Harris.

"Candidates have come to understand the value of tracking," Harris said.

Trackers can take many forms and can have huge impact. Secret recordings of Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser this year, later made public by Mother Jones magazine, included his statement that 47 percent of all Americans "believe they are victims" entitled to extensive government support.

"Who doesn't have a phone that records video and takes photos? Anyone can be a tracker," said national Republican consultant Luke Marchant. "Candidates and elected officials need to assume that they are being recorded and that they will be held accountable for what they say. A gaffe today is a headline tomorrow."


In perhaps the best-known case of a tracker, Sen. George Allen of Virginia was coasting toward re-election in 2006 when he was caught on videotape using the derogatory term "macaca" in reference to the videographer who was of Indian descent. His remarks gained publicity and Allen lost.

Working as a Democratic consultant in Kentucky in 2008, Emmons confronted a tracker who tried to follow Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford into a bathroom. Emmons didn't know who had hired the tracker. Lunsford lost to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In another case, Emmons said he had muzzle a tracker who blurted out repeated questions to disrupt a news conference by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky.

Rowley has seen trackers pummel a male candidate with questions about women the trackers named, just to create questions about the candidate's relationships with them.

(Continued on page 2)

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