Today, the Eliot Cutler campaign issued a statement attacking the Republican Governor’s Association for employing what is known as a “tracker” to follow him around and tape his public appearances.
In very strongly worded language (“stalk”, and “objectionable” made an appearance), Cutler accused the RGA of underhanded politics, essentially stalking him in hopes of getting some kind of “gotcha” moment on film for use in a negative attack ad. He especially took issue with the tracker introducing herself to him as a deli owner, rather than a paid political operative.
“While I realize that the RGA – or any other group – has every right to stalk candidates with a video camera, I have to confess that I find both the practice and this manner of doing so highly objectionable,” Cutler said. “Its only purpose – starting in March, no less – is to hopefully capture a few seconds of some ‘gotcha’ moment that can be used in a 30-second negative ad this fall.”
This, however, is the first time I have expressly disagreed with anything Eliot Cutler has done in his campaign. Let me tell you why.
First of all, trackers are hardly a new phenomenon, and they most certainly aren’t some kind of insidious poison in politics that deserves such a strong reaction. They are essentially volunteers or (very) low paid staff who follow around candidates, taking stock of what they say, and yes, looking for things that they say which a candidate might try to get away with while talking to a small group of people, but would otherwise be objectionable to the population at large.
The most famous and recognizable result of candidate tracking (specifically on video and the subsequent uploads onto YouTube) would have to be Senator George Allen of Virginia’s use of the word “macaca” in describing a Democratic operative who had been following him around. Macaca is a racial slur, and the tracker was of Indian descent. This incident blew up to the state and national media, and is largely responsible for the implosion of Allen, who was once thought invincible in his re-election campaign (and was also viewed as a front runner for the 2008 Republican nomination).
Yes, the video and the incident was used heavily by the Webb campaign – but let’s be honest here, I think the revelation that Senator Allen was apparently comfortable with using that word was more than fair game for public consumption, and may have in fact been a public service. The fact that it was largely blown out of proportion after the incident is more or less irrelevant – the point is, nothing a candidate says in public is out of bounds, and “keeping them honest” by having a tracker follow them around is more than appropriate.
Consider a previous article I wrote on James G. Blaine. While not a “tracker” as we think of them today, Blaine may have lost the presidency of 1884 because of what was a 19th century equivalent to a tracker:
In the end, what probably doomed Blaine was one of the earliest versions of a “macaca moment“. Blaine was present at a Republican meeting at which a Reverend used an anti-Catholic slur. A Democratic operative was present at the meeting, and handed it to the Cleveland campaign, who used it as a hammer in the Irish Catholic community against Blaine – especially in New York City. It was this, more than anything, that lead to Cleveland winning the state of New York (by only 1,047 votes), its 36 electoral votes, and with them, the presidency. Under normal circumstances, it seems likely that Blaine would have won New York.
Had this one incident not happened, Blaine would have won the electoral college by a 218-183 margin, and the popular vote would have likely been essentially tied, just like the previous election.
Blaine’s acceptance of anti-Catholic rhetoric was real, and the public knowing that fact was hardly a dis-service to the Catholic community who would be heading to the polls in that election.
The real point here is that candidate tracking is harmless. What you say on the record to eight people sitting around a table should be good enough to be heard by eight million people. Trackers are literally everywhere.
I was a tracker a few months ago, actually – with a flip video camera in hand, I followed a candidate (important note: this was a volunteer activity and nothing more) to an unadvertised meeting with a group of Washington lobbyists where this candidate was asking for money. People have a right to know that this type of thing is going on, especially when said candidate has been railing against lobbyists. Like most trackers, a campaign heard about something at the last minute and made a mad dash to just find a warm body and a cheap camera. I myself have recruited trackers to do the very same. And I have witnessed the other side do exactly the same thing.
Tracking is a check on hypocrisy, and pandering rhetoric from candidates. It is also harmless, and 99.9999999999% of what a tracker films does not actually end up in an attack ad. The only time it does is when – like the macaca moment – it is of significant importance and shocking relevance that the public deserves to know anyway.
Tracking is simply a fact of campaign life in 2010, and Cutler can expect the DNC, DGA or an individual Democratic campaign to film him also. Democratic campaigns should expect Republican campaigns to follow them around, and Republican campaigns should expect Democrats to follow them around. It is simply a fact of life, and as far as politics goes, is about the least dirty and abhorrent activity that goes on. If tracking gets this kind of a response, just wait.
More than anything, though, I think this response from the Cutler campaign – while I understand what he was trying to say – is simply a huge jump of the gun. “Politics as usual” would work as an attack if Cutler said something and the RGA cut an ad that completely perverted what he said and took it out of context. They have done no such thing, and quite frankly if any footage of him does get used for an attack ad from RGA or any of the Republican candidates, I would be flabbergasted.
His condemnation should have been saved for a time in which tracking video is used to throw mud in an unfair way. That hasn’t happened yet, and right now, all that is happening is a young girl is following a candidate around and video taping what he is saying.
My advice to Cutler? Don’t engage the tracker at all. Buy her lunch every once and a while and talk to her about how boring it must be to follow you around all the time. Take this in stride and with a grain of salt. Understand that there are much bigger fish to fry and there is no reason to get worked up about this until and unless they actually do something underhanded. By attacking the RGA now for simply video taping what you say, you make them look somewhat sympathetic – at least if they did distort and pervert what you say in an attack ad, you would be the one with the moral high ground to be outraged. But more than anything, relax, trackers are just young people interested in politics and are almost always nice people unworthy of scorn.
In short – smile, you’re on candid camera.