Tracking the trackers: hand-to-hand politics

Jeff Roe, Ted Cruz’s campaign manager responsible for some nasty campaign tactics, was in the news last week when Cruz had to fire his communications director for dirty tricks. Roe “was among the first local operatives to tail opponents with camera-wielding trackers and, a decade ago, to investigate the social media pages of candidates and their children” (Matt Flegenheimer, “Behind Ted Cruz’s Campaign Manager, Scorched Earth and Election Victories,” New York Times, Feb. 23, 2016).

Ah yes, tracking: do you remember the “macaca” incident ten years ago, which propelled Jim Webb into the Senate (a stroke of luck comparable to locations associated with Joe Sestak‘s 2006 CD-07 opponent, incumbent Curt Weldon, being raided by the FBI the month before the election)? In August 2006, the incumbent Republican, George Allen

…singled out S.R. Sidarth, a student working for the Webb campaign who was taping Allen’s appearance. Allen addressed Sidarth, an Indian American and a person of color, as a “macaca”… as in, “Let’s give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” An immediate outcry led to constant Allen apologies, insisting that he was not using a racial slur. His campaign has never been the same since…. (NPR, 9/22/06)

Now I’ve met one of those trackers, right here in West Chester, when John Fetterman, and one of the 4 Democrats who will be on the April 26 ballot for US Senate, gave a talk at West Chester University on January 27. He was a few minutes into telling us how he turned around the former steel town of Braddock, of which he has been mayor for 15 years, when he stopped and said, pretty much:

Oh, there’s John, my tracker from the Koch Brothers. They follow me around because they want to see if they can get me on video taking my pants down or saying something they can use against me. But John’s not a bad guy; I see him all the time. Hey John, how’re you doing today?

Fetterman + LongoA former college football player, Fetterman (photo at a local reception, with Chesco activist Lisa Longo) is not the type of shrinking candidate described in “Campaigns go to great lengths to avoid trackers,” by Daniel Malloy, AJCCom, 10/28/14, which describes a campaign in Nevada that “often is cagey about event details until the last minute in an attempt to avoid trackers, who can film in public places but are typically barred from indoor events on private property.”

At the end of the WCU event, after hearing about Fetterman’s long-standing and active commitment to the working poor, fairness to immigrants, and other issues, I went to the back of the room where a fellow was putting away his hand-held video camera, and I asked him whether he really worked for the Koch Brothers and what their purpose was in tracking Candidate Fetterman. “It’s not my place to comment,” John said, “but you can contact my boss if you want” and he gave me a card with an email. So I wrote:

…Today at his talk at West Chester University, US Senate candidate John Fetterman mentioned that a young man in the audience, John, was his “tracker.” I do find him among candidates featured at https://www.americarisingpac.org/candidates/ as well as his primary opponents Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak.

As the writer of a local political blog, https://politicswestchesterview.wordpress.com/, I plan to write up Mr. Fetterman’s talk, including the tracker mention–something I had not observed before.

John said afterwards “it is not my place to comment” but gave me his boss’s, that is your, email.

I will be grateful for any comment you wish to send about Mr. Fetterman, how you chose to track him, and America Rising’s overall tracking process, which I will print along with this query to you….

I didn’t really expect a reply, but I have to say, that organization was very forthcoming and cooperative, because a few days later I received back, from another staff member:

…I can confirm that America Rising is tracking Mayor Fetterman, and that we are also tracking Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty.

Our objective is to ensure Democrats are held accountable for their words and actions, and we accomplish that in part by cataloguing their every utterance on the campaign trail.

Here are two examples of our tracking footage of Sestak and McGinty:

https://www.americarisingpac.org/joe-sestak-you-should-ask-katie-mcginty-about-iran-deal/

https://www.americarisingpac.org/katie-mcginty-wont-say-who-she-voted-for-in-2010/

Let me know if you have any other questions, and feel free to reach out directly anytime….

The first brief clip shows Joe Sestak, who supports President Obama’s now-accomplished deal with Iran, saying (and it’s hardly breaking news) that the videotaper would have to ask Katie McGinty whether she is for it or not. (I haven’t been able to find the answer.)

The second clip shows a minute of banter between McGinty and our friend John, at the end of which she politely changes the subject from his question whether she voted for Sestak or Specter in the 2010 Dem primary for US Senate. (Sort of an intrusive question, really.)

So this all gives us a view of the inside hand-to-hand combat in the political ring. America Rising’s site shows only 13 “Featured Candidates” and 3 of them are vying for the honor of running against the Pat Toomey, so that endangered incumbent must rate very high on the America Rising list. Maybe the tracking program hasn’t adjusted yet to the presence of a 4th candidate, Joseph Vodvarka, who filed enough signatures to also be on the Dem ballot on April 26.

You can bet that Sestak and McGinty have their people checking out what Toomey says–which of course is easier, because when he does his job in Washington (or not, as in not wanting the Senate to consider a new Supreme Court justice for about a year), a lot is conveniently on the record.

Such tracking videos, laboriously compiled by people like John, yield the nuggets that populate those attack ads that we’ll be seeing ad nauseam as November 8 draws near.

America Rising is not exactly the Koch Brothers, though ideologically allied. According to Wikipedia,

America Rising is a Political Action Committee (PAC) that produces opposition research on Democratic Party members. It is located in Alexandria, Virginia. It was founded in March 2013 by Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, Matt Rhoades. Political strategist Tim Miller left the Republican National Committee (RNC) to join the clearinghouse. As of January 2014, between the PAC and the Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) run by fellow opposition research veteran Joe Pounder, the organization employed 47 people, full or part-time. CNN reported that America Rising would be split into two entities: a super PAC that aimed to spread negative stories about congressional Democratic incumbents and candidates through digital channels and earned media, and a LLC that would house a video library to be shared with GOP candidates, the RNC and other right-leaning groups. To avoid making illegal in-kind corporate contributions, the LLC would likely need to charge candidates for access to the library. Pounder and Miller estimated it would have a budget of between $10 and $15 million for the 2013-2014 election cycle.

David Weigel, “Every Step You Take, Every Move You Make, Slate.com, puts it a little more bluntly:

These trackers attempt to shoot video of every single public utterance the candidates’ make, in hopes of catching gaffes and flip-flops and collecting an archive that can be mined for hypocrisy and errors….

…America Rising is the freezer of the Republican party, storing messages and narratives are, that can be taken out at the right moment, microwaved, and served to voters.

As a 2014 New York Times article points out, this is one more ingenious way for candidates and “independent” groups to work together in an run around today’s collapsing campaign finance regulations: America Rising

could sell footage and research to anyone willing to pay. Republican candidates and super PACs, which otherwise might not coordinate with each other, could buy the same research and tracking footage, allowing their advertising to be more cohesive.

America Rising’s own site still features an attack on Katie McGinty—from which we deduce that they would prefer (perhaps wrongly) to see Joe Sestak or possibly John Fetterman run against right-wing pet Pat Toomey. The site primarily hammers away at Hillary Clinton, so we deduce that they think whichever right-winger wins the R nomination will have a better chance against Bernie Sanders (they could be wrong there too).

I think the moral is that, especially in the age of Citizens United, we need to figure out where information is coming from. If the ingenious Cruz team doctors photos of his rivals, that will out. On the other hand, if a candidate says something on video, it’s harder to show it’s a fake.

But then, video too can be doctored, as in the Planned Parenthood case, or snippets can be put together so a quote is out of context. For future self-defense, candidates will need to hire people to video all their own appearances as well as those of their opponents. On the positive side, it’s a welcome boost to the ongoing Obama jobs recovery… and an employment opportunity that can’t be outsourced abroad.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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