Candid Camera

Basically, candidates for higher office should get used to having the rest of their public – and sometimes private – lives filmed

By Kellyn Brown

A story hit the Associated Press wire last week on a so-called “tracker” getting too close for comfort to Montana Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis. Trackers are paid, often by third-party organizations, to follow incumbent and aspiring politicians with a camera wherever they go on the campaign trail. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that has occasionally proved effective.

Trackers aren’t limited to one party. Famously in 2006, during his campaign for reelection, former Republican Virginia Sen. George Allen referred to his video tracker (a Democratic field operative) as the derogatory term “macaca.” It was caught on camera and drastically changed the trajectory of the race. Allen lost.

In Curtis’ case, she has grown annoyed with tracker Brian O’Leary, who works for the conservative America Rising PAC. Recently, her aides and even her father have held up signs blocking O’Leary’s camera as he shadows Curtis. “I appreciate a little bubble,” she told the Associated Press. “We all have this personal space, and I deserve mine.”

But that personal space is largely ignored in high-profile races. Following the first, and so-far only, U.S. House debate between Democrat John Lewis and Republican Ryan Zinke in Butte, I stepped between Zinke and a young man pointing a small camera at him just a few feet away. Initially, I thought it was either a supporter or someone from another media outlet and quickly apologized for stepping in the frame. It was only once I walked across the parking lot to my car that I realized that wasn’t the case.

As Zinke strolled to his vehicle, he was flanked by his entourage and followed by the tracker, who kept the camera rolling until the group piled into a sedan. As the tracker stashed his gear in his backpack, I almost ran up to ask him, “What’s it like to work in the most miserable job in American politics?”

Nowadays, trackers are everywhere. And while they’re often ignored at campaign events, they’re also occasionally bullied and blocked from gaining access to candidates by signs and human barricades. In other words, every day of work has a good chance of being awful.

In a piece written in 2012 for American Public Media’s Marketplace, a political tracker instead emphasized the value of his job.  “Not everyone can make it to every political rally, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to see what a candidate is telling the people who are there,” he wrote.

Whatever your view of them, trackers continue to influence races. And now they are beginning to follow candidates off the campaign trail. Over the summer, a Democratic group’s tracker began filming North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis around the state capitol building. Tillis is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in November. Ironically, last year Democrats accused Republicans of violating “unwritten rules” after a conservative group dispatched a tracker to follow Hagan on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The opposition research firm that employed the tracker was undeterred by the criticism.

“Our objective is to hold Democrats accountable for their rhetoric wherever they go, and that is especially important when Congress is in session,” Tim Miller, executive director at America Rising, told BuzzFeed at the time.

Basically, candidates for higher office should get used to having the rest of their public – and sometimes private – lives filmed. And we should get used to only seeing the most exciting, or more often embarrassing, portions of their days – just like any good reality show.

Trackers are now so prevalent that they are often tailed at events by other trackers. Yes, trackers are now tracking trackers. Makes me want to run for office.

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