MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Left-leaning websites had a field day earlier this month with a video. It's of Republican Congressman Allen West speaking at a public meeting in Florida.
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REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party.
SIEGEL: Seventy-eight to 81 Democrats in Congress are communists, he believes. West has been defending that remark ever since. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the scene was recorded by a video tracker, one of a legion of political operatives trying to catch opposing candidates saying something they'll regret.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: For every snippet of video that goes viral, video trackers record hundreds of hours of pure tedium, stump speeches, town halls, chit-chats in parking lots.
JESSIE WILLIAMS: Mr. Hasner.
ADAM HASNER: Hey.
KASTE: This is tracker footage of Adam Hasner, a Republican running for Congress in Florida. The tracker, a young woman working for the Democrats, approaches him by his car as he preps for an event.
WILLIAMS: Before you go inside, can you answer a couple of questions for me?
HASNER: Yeah. Can I get dressed first?
WILLIAMS: Sure. I won't look.
KASTE: Both of them are well aware of the fact that she's here in hopes of catching him on camera saying something dumb, and yet the whole exchange is remarkably cordial. They start chatting as if it's just another day at the office.
HASNER: So how are you enjoying Florida?
WILLIAMS: I'm liking it. I've been here for a few months, though.
HASNER: Oh. Are you?
KASTE: Hasner even holds the door open for the camera as it follows him. In American politics, video tracking has now become normal. There are trackers working for the campaigns, for the parties and, increasingly, for political action committees.
One pro-Democratic PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, has 17 trackers deployed to key congressional races around the country. In 2008, Sara DuBois was a tracker for a group called Progressive Media. She says, as jobs go, it can be pretty nerve-wracking.
SARA DUBOIS: Well, the first thing is you want to make sure that you don't go to this event and forget to turn the camera on.
KASTE: She says things work best when trackers don't try to play games. They should admit up front that they're working for the enemy camp. The key, she says, is transparency.
DUBOIS: Transparency without over-divulging. I mean, you don't want to go in and say, hi. I'm here to destroy you. Where do I stand?
KASTE: The targeted campaigns usually tolerate the trackers, though they don't exactly offer them front row seats. But sometimes, trackers face eviction. DuBois says she was taught to point out her right to record at public events. But she says it's also important not to put up a physical fight because there's a better strategy.
DUBOIS: No matter what, you keep the camera on. So, if you are being turned away, you film that process. The last thing that they want is to become the story by, you know, sort of aggressively turning away a tracker.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know you're not wanted here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're going to make it worse.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right. You guys made that clear.
KASTE: This is the kind of scene DuBois is talking about. In 2010, at an outdoor political rally in Florida, a Democratic tracker kept the camera going as he was confronted by what you might call a group of motorcycle enthusiasts.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get your hands off (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is a free place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah? And we're free to stand here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. Fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're free to stand here.
KASTE: There are different kinds of video tracking. Some organizations are mainly building libraries of everything said by the opposing candidates. It's all catalogued for future reference. There are trackers focused on public events. Some of them work man-to-man. Others have what they call a zone strategy.
And then there is the more daring, subspecialty of tracking that's known as bird-dogging. For instance, this guy. As the video starts, he's actually hiding behind a pillar waiting for the perfect moment to jump out at Democratic Senator Jon Tester.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Senator Tester, how are you today, sir? You doing well? Sir, you know what the national debt is? Do you?
KASTE: The whole point of this is to produce unflattering images of the politician fleeing the camera. For the candidate, the challenge is to walk away as swiftly as possible without looking guilty. And, no matter what, the candidate should never do what Democrat Bob Etheridge did two years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Do you fully support the Obama agenda?
BOB ETHERIDGE: Who are you? Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Whoa.
ETHERIDGE: Who are you?
KASTE: Etheridge takes a swipe at the camera, then grabs the arm of one of the young men. He later apologized, claiming a long day, but the tape was already destined for remix as an attack ad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Whoa.
ETHERIDGE: Who are you?
ABBY: I'm Abby.
ETHERIDGE: I don't know who you are.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Where Bob Etheridge's constituents.
KASTE: Etheridge was not re-elected. When the video trackers appear, Michael Baumgartner says he and his fellow politicians can't help but imagine the eventual attack ad.
SENATOR MICHAEL BAUMGARTNER: We sometimes say the little voice to each other, you know, Senator Joe Paine doesn't like puppy dogs.
KASTE: Baumgartner is a legislator in Washington state and he says he's seen video tracking on state level campaigns, but when he launched a run for the U.S. Senate last fall, the cameras were suddenly everywhere. On a trip to D.C., bird-doggers popped up as he got out of a taxi cab. And back home, he says a tracker followed his wife around a dark parking lot. He says there ought to be some limits.
BAUMGARTNER: Videotape the candidate, but don't harass their family members.
KASTE: The cameras also constantly remind the candidates to stay on message. For instance, Baumgartner says it's just not a good idea to engage in off-the-cuff humor.
BAUMGARTNER: You do get a temptation sometimes to say something a little ironic, but you know it's going to get taken out of context. And when you're on the campaign trail, you know, jokes taken out of context oftentimes do a lot of damage.
KASTE: And that may be video tracking's most lamentable effect, says political consultant Brian Crowley. During his years as a reporter, he says he learned the value of sometimes putting his notebook away to let the candidate relax.
BRIAN CROWLEY: Now, a candidate never feels like he's not only not being watched by somebody holding a notebook, but not being watched by somebody carrying an iPhone. And sometimes, I think, when you hear complaints that candidate X, Y or Z is too stiff, I think, sometimes, they're just afraid.
KASTE: Former video tracker Sara DuBois says she understands this, but she also says candidates should not worry so much about gaffs. A dumb remark may get play on the Internet, she says, but that by itself won't sink a campaign.
DUBOIS: It's not the fact that we have a camera on them and that we have it recorded that something sticks or changes everything. So, if they're being candid and consistent and their policies are something that people support, then having the camera there, I don't think, will change it.
KASTE: Not that anybody really has a choice in the matter. With video cameras now in every pocket, politicians are foolish not to assume they're being recorded all the time, almost anywhere, just like everybody else.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.
SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.