AUGUSTA, Maine — As Maine’s governor addressed the newly elected Legislature in early December, his frustration with trackers, the video camera-toting operatives who follow politicians around, boiled over into a brief diatribe that set the session off to a sour start.
In a setting usually reserved for rhetoric about bipartisanship and cooperation, Republican Gov. Paul LePage sarcastically thanked Democrats for hiring “my own paparazzi,” surprising some legislators and outraging others.
Trackers have become a staple of American elections over the past few years, and politicians have been wrestling with this new reality and their advisers issuing constant warnings for them to watch what they say, mindful of the fallout that an inartful comment caught on video can bring. But now, as in the case of LePage, who doesn’t face re-election for two more years, these trackers are turning up even when it’s not an election year to catch candidates who slip verbally, in hopes of using the flub against them in the future.
“It’s like forcing a turnover in the preseason and being able to use it in the postseason,” said John Rowley, a Democratic consultant based in Nashville, Tenn.
Trackers are hired by both political parties, candidates, political action committees and now so-called super-PACs, said Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a bipartisan group based in Virginia. “It’s a very serious enterprise.”
Tracking can also be a strong hedge against misstatements in political ads that pare down the candidate’s recorded comments and reshape them to mislead voters. That practice has forced parties and campaigns in many cases to track their own candidates to make sure that remarks can be explained with their full context.
“It’s less about ‘gotcha’ and more about the credibility of the political ads,” said Rowley.
Year-round tracking of elected officials who are likely to become candidates, well before and after campaign seasons, is a growing trend, said Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super-PAC that specializes in opposition research and tracking.
Tracking helps to hold those officials accountable if they make contradictory public statements, said Harris. “Candidates have come to understand the value of tracking.”
Trackers can take many forms and can have huge impact. Secret recordings of Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser this year, later made public by Mother Jones magazine, included his statement that 47 percent of all Americans “believe they are victims” entitled to extensive government support.
“Who doesn’t have a phone that records video and takes photos? Anyone can be a tracker,” said national Republican consultant Luke Marchant. “Candidates and elected officials need to assume that they are being recorded and that they will be held accountable for what they say. A gaffe today is a headline tomorrow.”
In perhaps the best-known case of a tracker, Sen. George Allen of Virginia was coasting toward re-election in 2006 when he was caught on videotape using the derogatory term “macaca” in reference to the videographer, who was of Indian descent. His remarks gained publicity and Allen lost.
Working as a Democratic consultant in Kentucky in 2008, Emmons confronted a tracker who tried to follow Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford into a bathroom. Emmons didn’t know who had hired the tracker. Chandler lost to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In another case, Emmons said he had muzzle a tracker who blurted out repeated questions to disrupt a news conference by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky.
Rowley has seen trackers pummel a male candidate with questions about women the trackers named, just to create questions about the candidate’s relationships with them.
“There are really no boundaries these guys won’t cross,” said Emmons.
In Maine, LePage said the tracker went too far when he taped the governor speaking with an elderly veteran who was in poor health, though video that was eventually published showed no conversation between LePage and the elderly veteran.
“There was no need to have filmed this private discussion for political purposes,” said LePage, who is well-known for his blunt off-the-cuff statements that sometimes veer into gaffes.
The 23-year-old tracker, Brian Jordan, denied the governor’s claim on the Maine Democratic Party’s website.
“Despite what’s been said, I don’t record private conversations. I don’t sit outside his home waiting to videotape him or his wife going to the grocery store. I’m not lurking in the bushes or planting hidden video cameras,” Jordan wrote. “I just record his public appearances.”
Nevertheless, the governor demanded that Democrats call off their tracker. They’ve refused. So in turn, LePage is refusing to sit down with Democratic legislative leaders at a critical time, when the state’s elected leaders need to introduce their plans for the next session to each other.
The back and forth points to one of the negative impacts of tracking, said political science Assistant Professor Christopher Mann at the University of Miami, who questioned whether LePage is using what happened with the tracker as a reason to stop governing.
“That seems like a rather disproportionate reaction,” Mann said.
Since then, tracking has become ubiquitous, Mann said.
The practice “is really just a new media reality that we’re living,” said Democratic strategist Colin Rogero of Revolution Media in Washington. Those who wish it away “are standing in the way of the communications train.”