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

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 Senator 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 Senator 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 Breitbart 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 Senator 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 Representative 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 Senator 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 Senator Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, and Senator 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."

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