The Haverhill VFW Post was friendly territory for Senator Scott Brown, a National Guardsman himself. Yet in the midst of his remarks to veterans this month, he stopped abruptly, distracted by a video camera in the crowd.
Brown fixed an icy gaze on the man behind the lens.
The cameraman was a video tracker for a liberal group that supports Brown’s Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. His mission, as it is most days, is to track the senator’s every word, in hopes of catching an inconsistency, or better, a gaffe. The senator, too, reaps the benefits of a tracker, one assigned to follow Warren.
Brown ordered the young man out.
“Every word they’ll use in some kind of negative commercial and it’s shameful,’’ Brown later said, according to the Eagle-Tribune newspaper.
The political equivalent of paparazzi, trackers have been used for at least 16 years in Massachusetts, since the 1996 Weld-Kerry Senate race. But this campaign season, with the Brown vs. Warren contest emerging as one of the most closely watched in the country, two media-savvy candidates have found themselves dodging the ubiquitous cameras, even demanding they leave.
With the stakes that much higher and the number of trackers growing, the constant filming can feel that much more intrusive, their presence that much more of a threat.
And that raises an important question: In this YouTube era, is the opposition’s tracker actually any more dangerous than anyone else? Couldn’t any citizen with a smartphone and a dose of cynicism capture the next “macaca moment’’ - a reference to an on-camera ethnic slur that US Senator George Allen of Virginia made about a tracker assigned to follow him. Some say that slur, captured on video, cost Allen reelection.
“We live in an age where anyone can record anything at any time and publish it with global reach to anyone at practically zero cost,’’ said Nicco Mele, an expert on integrating politics and technology who was webmaster for Howard Dean’s presidential race and now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “If you are a leader in this day and age, you need to operate under the assumption that even small private meetings of three people could be recorded and released on the Internet.’’
Warren found that out early when she was captured on video at an Andover house party, speaking animatedly about her view that nobody got rich on his own. Her supporters flooded the Internet with it, thinking it showcased passion. But the Massachusetts Republican Party saw something different. They repurposed the video with ominous music and grainier images for a Web ad that made Warren look like an extremist, even slightly unhinged.
“Politicians have to assume that they are always being taped no matter where they are,’’ said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She pointed to the comments that then-candidate Barack Obama made at a San Francisco fund-raiser about down-and-out Pennsylvanians who get bitter and “cling to guns or religion.’’
The person who captured the quote wasn’t a Republican tracker but an Obama supporter and blogger.
“That was a citizen journalist. We’ve all now got phones in hand that can tape,’’ said Jamieson. “There is no such thing as a private moment for anyone running for office.’’
Still, a tracker in the room can heighten the tension for candidates, reminding them of the stakes of every utterance.
“There’s a person there whose sole purpose is to wait for you to screw up,’’ said Jeff Berkowitz, former research director for the Republican National Committee. “It’s stressful for a candidate. They can’t be in a room anymore and just have a conversation and misspeak. As shocking as it may be for people, candidates are human beings and can’t always speak as artfully as they want to.’’
Campaigns generally let an opposition tracker into events that are open to the public - some candidates have even been known to embrace their trackers as de facto campaign staffers. But they also try to restrict access to events they consider private, whether they’re in a home or club or rented conference room.
Sometimes, as with Brown in Haverhill, a campaign bans trackers from events where their candidate is expected to shine. Warren’s team recently barred a Republican tracker from a rented space in a community arts center in Lynn where the Democratic candidate, a bankruptcy law expert and consumer advocate, was showcasing her expertise, disentangling complicated mortgage policies and unfurling sympathy for homeowners who were at risk of losing their homes.
What could have gone wrong for Warren?
“This cat-and-mouse game of kicking trackers out is just part of the great game of politics,’’ said Mele.
Brown - a former model, a longtime state legislator, and a national political cause celebre - could hardly be considered camera-shy. Yet the GOP celebrity squirms under the gaze of a tracker, a twenty-something, entry-level staffer who makes $2,500 a month from the Massachusetts Democratic Party. None of the trackers would comment about his work for this story.
The senator has been burned before by those who infiltrate his events. Last year, a liberal blog caught Brown on video, thanking conservative billionaire David Koch for his contribution and asking for support in his reelection. And unlike the trackers, who are trained not to disrupt events, activists sometimes try to heckle the incumbent. At the Haverhill VFW Post, an activist pressed Brown to justify why he accepted health care for his daughter while objecting to Obama’s health care plan.
These days, Brown routinely has more than one tracker trailing him. His Senate reelection campaign is one of 17 hot national races being followed by trackers for American Bridge, a liberal political action committee.
Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge, said trackers now need a thick skin, political savvy, and knowledge of the issues to help them sniff out news. Tracking is not just about capturing a “gotcha moment,’’ Mollineau said, but about documenting a candidate’s evolving positions or shifting rhetoric before different audiences.
Dominick Ianno, who tracked Senator John F. Kerry for Governor William Weld in 1996, recalled his satisfaction seeing his footage put to use, showing Kerry repeatedly talking about sponsoring a children’s health bill he had never actually filed.
“That’s sort of like your shining moment when you’re happy that the video became useful,’’ said Ianno. “You see it up on the nightly news.’’