“The nail in a candidate’s political coffin, if not hammered in during their impromptu improv session, can also be found after the fact in what generally ends up being the ‘meatier’ section: the Q&A.”
One of the biggest changes to have ever come to the political campaign scene was the spread of “tracking,” or the jargon used by staffers to denote the practice of recording—often secretly—candidate speeches or discussions. As Ben Terris describes it in The Washington Post: “Hundreds of (mostly younger) men and women, armed with little more than a portable camera, have the awkward job of spending every waking hour filming politicians from the other side of the political aisle.” The goal is to catch the rival politician slipping and saying something incriminating.
Tracking is usually done and is also most effective at small events, ones that are technically “open to the public,” but tend to be put on by local political clubs (Think, for the Chicagoans out there, the “20th Ward Democrats” and so forth).
It’s extremely important to note the word, “technically,” because it’s what the tracker—and whoever pays them—counts upon: new candidates, especially those running for local office, tend to lack proper media training to begin with, so when they’re around a group of people that they perceive to be allies (i.e. not someone looking for a career-ending soundbite), their already-inadequate guard is lowered even further, and they’ll start to deviate from their stump script.
Enter the tracker: unlike a well-dressed reporter with logo-emblazoned and intimidating microphones and large cameras, the tracker appears to be unassuming—if not outright supportive. So the politician is more likely to let his or her guard down.
The nail in a candidate’s political coffin, if not hammered in during their impromptu improv session, can also be found after the fact in what generally ends up being the “meatier” section: the Q&A. Here, especially, is where the candidate is expected to leave the script, which is done out of necessity. Planning for every single question imaginable is impossible. Furthermore, trying to do so would come across as disingenuous and robotic. Politicians prefer to have “conversations,” which implies a warm personability and an eagerness to engage with voters.
Enter the tracker: unlike a well-dressed reporter with an emblazoned logo and an intimidating microphone and large cameras, the tracker appears to be unassuming—if not outright supportive. So the politician is more likely to let his or her guard down.
But why bring this up? Seeing as how the “Golden Age” of tracking came and went with the advent of the iPhone, what is the relevance of talking about such tactics, especially when we have a new generation of millennial Congresspeople who understand the nuances of technology?
Simply because although our congressional newcomers understand that what they say anywhere will likely have a permanent Internet record, they cannot avoid an essential facet of human nature: the desire to defend fiercely one’s own views.
The new battleground for this is Twitter.
Take, for example, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent AIPAC controversy. Although it spawned from the now-infamous tweet against a Glenn Greenwald reference to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby”), the final tweet in the sequence (“AIPAC”) was done in response to one made by Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor at The Forward. Aside from the blue checkmark on Ungar-Sargon’s Twitter page, there was little on the surface-level to indicate that, unlike Representative McCarthy, she was firmly in opposition to Rep. Omar’s views.
In fact, everything about her profile screamed that she was just yet another social media influencer, one that appeared to agree with Omar’s worldview too: her profile picture isn’t a professional headshot, but a selfie. Her pinned post is one that talks about recognizing the evils that the United States has committed and, lastly—although she does list her place of employment, The Forward—the publication isn’t exactly the most well-known. A cursory glance at such a name brings to mind prominent left-leaning outlets such as The Intercept and The Verge. The shorthand (“The Forward”) is actually short for The Jewish Daily Forward. Combine that with The Forward’s listed homebase of Brooklyn, New York—a real hotbed of conservative thought, as we know—and you’ve got what effectively amounts to the perfect online “tracker.”
In other words, what we saw happening with Rep. Omar—albeit unintentionally—is what I see as the future of professional campaign tracking: using unassuming-looking, if not outright liberal-appearing, social media personalities to ask seemingly innocuous questions that have disastrous answers.
It’s easily the most cost-effective tool that a campaign would be able to wield. Instead of having to shell out to trackers what amounts up to nearly $150 for every hour-long speech that the opposition gives, it is highly doubtful that somebody shooting off a tweet from their living room would warrant anywhere close to the same pay. Certainly, in-person tracking would remain a necessity, but campaigns would only stand to benefit from adopting such a strategy.
What’s more, as a former tracker and transcriber myself, I can confidently say that campaign workers would greatly appreciate never, ever having to transcribe again. Avoiding transcribing is always a goal of campaign workers, even if it means just more time for phone-banking and eating cheap pizza.
Matthew Pinna is a student at the University of Chicago and a former campaign worker.