On the Wrong Track

It all started with that one word "Macaca."

That slur convinced every campaign in America that they needed a tracker, a person to document the public events of their opponents.

Oh sure, campaigns had used trackers before. When I started research, it was a rare thing to track an opposing candidate. Mostly because it was really hard to carry the stone tablet, hammer and chisel everywhere.

But by the early 90s, campaigns had starting using trackers with tape recorders, graduating to video when the technology allowed. Then George Allen uttered that hateful word, and research was never the same. Now, with cheap digital cameras, or even camera phones in a pinch, tracking has never been easier or more prevalent.

Despite the proliferation, the rules about tracking have stayed pretty much the same. Be honest about who you are, tape public events, and don't become the story. Trackers, like children, should be seen but not heard.

Recently, however, there has been a trend for campaign trackers to become more aggressive, and it is coming from both sides of the aisle. This doesn't bode well for campaigns, and it definitely is a problem for research, as it blurs the distinction between documenting and agitating.

Democratic trackers have garnered press recently for filming the homes of Republican candidates.

The DCCC has stood by its practice of filming homes and placing them on YouTube, arguing that it wants to cast House Republicans -- especially those who are wealthy and have large homes -- as out of touch with struggling American families. By placing the videos online, the DCCC is hoping that like-minded outside groups will use the footage in TV ads this fall.

The problem here is that campaigns have a détente with trackers -- campaigns allow a tracker to film their own candidate, with the understanding that the opponent would extend the same courtesy to their own tracker. But as you ramp up the hostilities, campaigns could start to restrict access. They might not release their schedule publicly, or assign staffers to prevent the tracker from filming. That means less data, and anything that leads to less information is bad for research.

While the Democrats have been testing the boundaries of tracking, the Indiana GOP has obliterated them.

Kurt Holland was enlisted to follow Democratic Senate nominee Joe Donnelly in hopes of catching him in an embarrassing situation. Turns out it was Holland who committed the faux pas. Instead of following Donnelly he was following Marion County Judge Jose Salinas.
Oops. Salinas told The Indianapolis Star that he had noticed a man with a camera videotaping a Democratic picnic he was attending Saturday ... (snip)

But as he left, he noticed the man in a car following him. At first, he figured they were just going the same way. But as the man persistently stayed behind him, going faster when Salinas went faster, slowing when the judge slowed, Salinas grew concerned ... (snip)

"Mr. Holland admitting to photographing the (Democratic) event and chasing after Judge Salinas, but says he thought he was following Joe Donnelly," the police report states.

Rather than describing what is wrong with this tracking effort, I'll list what was right.

1. No one was hurt.

That's about it. Mr. Holland's offenses are hard to believe. His video was useless. All he got was Donnelly walking into an event. No comments, no speeches, no nothing.

And as for his driving exploits, it turns out Holland was much more Inspector Clouseau than Jason Bourne. But there was no reason for him to try to follow Donnelly to his home. A simple courthouse search, or research on Lexis-Nexis would reveal it. He added a degree of difficulty when it was completely unnecessary.

So Holland had useless information, became the story, and caused an embarrassment. Insert your own "Mr. Holland's Opus" play on words here.

Tracking isn't about stalking, it's about documenting your opponent. If campaigns use trackers to force the action, as opposed to documenting it, the result may be more heat and less light.