Meet the Trackers: Inside the Strangest Job on the Campaign Trail

There's a whole caste of young staffers who follow candidates all day every day, hoping to capture the next "47 percent" or "Macaca" moment.
Chris Keane/Reuters

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 cofounder Tim Miller said.

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."

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