Inside the Strangest Job on the Campaign Trail

“What about your gaffes?” Campaign trackers make sure candidates can’t escape slipups.

A TV camera films a model of 'Moon Mask' by Ugo Rondinone as it is is unveiled as a proposed design for the Fourth Plinth at the Crypt, St Martin-in-the-Feilds on September 24, 2013 in London, England.
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Emma Roller
Sept. 3, 2014, 8:23 a.m.

Kelli Farr re­mem­bers run­ning through a corn­field after get­ting yelled at by a crowd of Sarah Pal­in fans.

It was 2008, and Farr was work­ing as a cam­paign track­er — someone em­ployed by an op­pos­ing polit­ic­al party to fol­low a can­did­ate on the cam­paign trail, doc­u­ment­ing his or her every move, in hopes of cap­tur­ing a slipup.

The corn­field in­cid­ent oc­curred when Farr was track­ing Pal­in’s 2008 cam­paign for vice pres­id­ent. “There were many times when the crowd would get pretty angry,” Farr told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We had to be es­cor­ted out of some events for the crowd get­ting a little angry at the people in the press riser. People like to blame the people film­ing.”

Farr is now the vice pres­id­ent and dir­ect­or of track­ing at Amer­ic­an Bridge, a Demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tion that is sis­ters with Me­dia Mat­ters and Cor­rect the Re­cord, two or­gan­iz­a­tions that are at con­stant war with Fox News and con­ser­vat­ive me­dia at large.

Amer­ic­an Bridge em­ploys 43 track­ers to cov­er 39 states. Since 2012, the or­gan­iz­a­tion has tripled the num­ber of events its track­ers cov­er. In 2012, Bridge’s 20 track­ers re­cor­ded 3,000 events in 33 states. In 2014, they have tracked more than 9,000 events and traveled a cu­mu­lat­ive 693,000 miles.

“When it’s a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, you’re go­ing from flight to flight to flight to event,” Farr said. “Their sched­ule is your sched­ule. So if you have a can­did­ate that’s hav­ing eight events a day, you have eight events a day. And you’re ob­vi­ously usu­ally sur­roun­ded by people that have dif­fer­ent opin­ions than you, and are def­in­itely fight­ing for the ex­act op­pos­ite of what you are.”

Some track­ers have been fol­low­ing the same can­did­ate for years — around the state, around the coun­try, on planes, on buses, in town halls, in swanky fun­draisers — all on the off chance that they’ll get the can­did­ate on tape say­ing something polit­ic­ally dis­taste­ful or flip-flop­ping on a po­s­i­tion. A new “47 per­cent” or “Macaca,” if you will.

“Polit­ic­al com­ment­at­or Mi­chael Kins­ley once said that the defin­i­tion of a gaffe is when you catch a politi­cian telling the truth,” Amer­ic­an Bridge’s about page reads. “That’s ex­actly what we plan to do.”

On the Re­pub­lic­an side is Amer­ica Rising, a su­per PAC formed in 2013 by Matt Rhoades, who served as Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign man­ager, along with oth­er vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives. (Iron­ic­ally, the same people who may have lost a job in the West Wing be­cause of a stealth­ily taped gaffe are now try­ing to take out Demo­crats us­ing the same meth­ods.)

Amer­ica Rising em­ploys 27 full-time track­ers in 24 states, as well as a “few dozen” part-time track­ers to cov­er mis­cel­laneous events, or in con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts where the can­did­ate doesn’t do enough events to jus­ti­fy hav­ing a full-time track­er.

“The kinds of people that are part-time track­ers really run the gamut, from Col­lege Re­pub­lic­ans that are still in school, to people who work in Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics whose bosses would give them the flex­ib­il­ity to leave for an hour and go do an event, to stay-at-home moms who are mak­ing a little ex­tra money on the side,” Amer­ica Rising’s cofounder, Tim Miller, told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

While the two groups may look like mir­ror im­ages of each oth­er — a polit­ic­al “Spy vs. Spy” — the Demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tion is much more well-heeled than its Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part. Amer­ic­an Bridge has more than five times the cash on hand as Amer­ica Rising, ac­cord­ing to their most re­cent Fed­er­al Elec­tions Com­mis­sion fil­ings. At the end of Ju­ly, Amer­ic­an Bridge had more than $1.7 mil­lion in the bank, while Amer­ica Rising had roughly $329,000.

There is a weird sym­bi­os­is between track­ers and the cam­paigns they’re cov­er­ing. Some track­ers will ac­tu­ally de­vel­op an ami­able re­la­tion­ship with the cam­paign staff. “It really de­pends on the can­did­ate,” Farr said. “We’ve def­in­itely had can­did­ates that were very re­spect­ful and even cre­ated friend­ships with some of our track­ers.”

“It’s a mix,” Miller said. “There are friendly staffers. I’m hav­ing trouble think­ing of an ex­ample where it’s com­pletely am­ic­able.”

There are def­in­itely stor­ies to the con­trary. In Au­gust, one of Amer­ica Rising’s track­ers caught heat for re­cord­ing a pub­lic event for Alabama’s Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for at­tor­ney gen­er­al, Joe Hub­bard. At the event, Hub­bard ac­cused the track­er of “dirty tricks” and re­tali­ated by tweet­ing out pho­tos of the track­er, his Amer­ica Rising ID badge, and his Linked­In pro­file. In June, two track­ers em­ployed by the Re­pub­lic­an Party were caught us­ing “spy glasses” to re­cord a private fun­draiser for Michigan’s Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for gov­ernor.

Ideally for Amer­ica Rising and Amer­ic­an Bridge, though, the cam­paigns will even­tu­ally ig­nore the track­er al­to­geth­er and let her do her work. In ex­change, the track­er won’t hassle the cam­paign — un­til her video gets up­loaded to You­Tube later that night.

“In the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, we tell our track­ers we want them to be a fly on the wall,” Miller said. “We want them to go stand in the back of the room, not be a prob­lem, and get as much video as pos­sible. This is not like the old days where you’d jump some­body out from be­hind a bush and try to cre­ate a news story. That’s not our ob­ject­ive.”

He ad­ded, “Now, if can­did­ates are hid­ing from the cam­er­as and re­fuse to let us in­to any events, then in those cases we look to oth­er strategies.”

The fly com­par­is­on is es­pe­cially apt. For a can­did­ate’s com­mu­nic­a­tions team, who try to make sure their boss sticks to talk­ing points and doesn’t go off script, track­ers are like pesky flies who won’t leave them alone.

Miller worked as Jon Hunts­man’s press sec­ret­ary dur­ing Hunts­man’s 2008 cam­paign for pres­id­ent, so he knows the oth­er side of track­ing. While Hunts­man’s ad­vance staff would some­times try to shoo away track­ers from Demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions, those high­er up in the cam­paign didn’t care as much about their pres­ence.

“I do think that the press people’s ini­tial in­stinct is to be hos­tile,” Miller said. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth to be wast­ing a staffer’s time try­ing to kick out a track­er when they should be sign­ing up vo­lun­teers.”

So, who are these track­ers? It’s hard to say, since neither Amer­ic­an Bridge or Amer­ica Rising let their track­ers talk to the press. “A lot of people think it’s just an in­tern sent out with their iPhone,” Farr said. “These kids have to know everything about that race. They fol­low these people three years at a time and be­come ex­perts of everything they’ve ever said.”

Amer­ica Rising’s trophy hunt­ing paid off this year — with Bruce Bra­ley, a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for Sen­ate in Iowa. At a cam­paign event in March, an Amer­ica Rising track­er caught Bra­ley on cam­era de­rid­ing Sen. Chuck Grass­ley as a “farm­er from Iowa who nev­er went to law school” serving as the next chair of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee — a cri­tique some said was blown out of pro­por­tion, but not quite the pop­u­list im­age politi­cians like to evoke. (Bra­ley’s cam­paign says he knew he was be­ing video­taped.)

Miller is proud of his group’s bounty, as he should be — Bra­ley’s “farm­er” quote has caused his cam­paign to fal­ter. The Des Moines Re­gister called the race “the epi­cen­ter of the GOP battle to re­claim power in the U.S. Sen­ate.” Polit­ic­al pro­gnost­ic­at­ors are now more hes­it­ant about his chances. “Bra­ley is a sol­id re­cruit, but he has taken sev­er­al mis­steps, in­clud­ing in­sult­ing Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, who is very pop­u­lar in the state,” writes the The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, which con­siders the race a toss-up.

“The Bruce Bra­ley video was the most sig­ni­fic­ant thing that we’ve done,” Miller said, re­fer­ring to the 2014 cycle.

The Bra­ley cam­paign has kicked Amer­ica Rising’s track­er out of at least 27 events, ac­cord­ing to the The Des Moines Re­gister. Miller says Amer­ica Rising’s strategy is to use car­rots and sticks — they’ll send track­ers to cov­er a cam­paign and be cor­di­al “at the start,” but if the cam­paign gives them trouble, they’ll be­come more ag­gress­ive. That ag­gres­sion can trans­late to hyp­ing up “gaffes” that aren’t sub­stan­tial. Take, for in­stance, this Amer­ica Rising video call­ing Bra­ley the “John Ed­wards of 2014.” (Con­ser­vat­ive out­lets like the Wash­ing­ton Free Beacon and Breit­ took the com­par­is­on and ran with it.)

The video uses track­er foot­age of Bra­ley sup­posedly get­ting his makeup done be­fore a CN­BC in­ter­view, and mashes it up with the in­fam­ous video of Ed­wards ob­sess­ing over his hair be­fore an event. The video is scored by the song “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story.

CN­BC didn’t take kindly to the clip. “Fact-check: Bra­ley is get­ting wiped off by @CN­BC crew AT OUR RE­QUEST bc we prefer our guests not sweat­ing on TV,” CN­BC’s John Har­wood tweeted.

Bra­ley isn’t the only suc­cess track­ers have had this cycle. Aside from Bra­ley’s farm­er gaffe, Amer­ica Rising’s track­ers have bagged some big game. Most re­cently, one of their track­ers caught Sen. Harry Re­id jok­ing to a crowd at the Asi­an Cham­ber of Com­merce that, “I don’t think you’re smarter than any­body else, but you’ve con­vinced a lot of us you are.” An­oth­er video shows Rep. Scott Peters of Cali­for­nia jok­ing about a gay fe­male Re­pub­lic­an in his dis­trict, “Who does she have lunch with?”

On the Demo­crat­ic side, an Amer­ic­an Bridge track­er caught Scott Brown, who is run­ning for the Sen­ate in New Hamp­shire, flip-flop­ping on cli­mate change. An­oth­er track­er caught Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter of Louisi­ana telling a crowd, “I think the Koch broth­ers are two of the most pat­ri­ot­ic Amer­ic­ans. … God bless the Koch broth­ers.” The story that was quickly snatched up by left-lean­ing news out­lets.

None of these rev­el­a­tions ex­actly add up to a “47 per­cent” mo­ment, for Re­pub­lic­ans or Demo­crats run­ning this year. But that won’t dis­suade groups like Amer­ic­an Bridge and Amer­ica Rising from dog­gedly pur­su­ing can­did­ates, in this cycle and bey­ond.

Amer­ic­an Bridge em­ploys three track­ers in Flor­ida alone, and “mul­tiple” track­ers in Iowa. “We just have the sheer num­bers,” Farr said. “We have people we can shift all over the coun­try when need be.”

Amer­ica Rising, the Re­pub­lic­an group, has a Demo­crat “rising star pro­gram” to track Demo­crats who may have pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions — which mainly means Hil­lary Clin­ton, along with Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren, Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Any­body who’s look­ing at 2016, we’ll track ‘em,” Miller said. “We’ve got a track­er in all of the early states — Iowa, South Car­o­lina, New Hamp­shire, Nevada — and we an­ti­cip­ate keep­ing people there through 2016.”

Contributions by Stephanie Stamm

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