Enter “the trackers”

Cameron Lynch Contributor
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Just when political pundits thought we’d seen every campaign trick in the book, this year’s mid-term election cycle once again proves us wrong.  Credit (or blame, depending on your viewpoint) for the newest fad in electoral tactics goes to an odd figure: former Virginia Senator George Allen.

Allen, considered a shoo-in for re-election as Virginia’s Senator in 2006 and a potential presidential contender in 2008, saw his hopes for both races torpedoed after publicly directing a racial slur toward a member of his opponent’s team during a campaign rally.  What Allen didn’t know was that the operative was carrying a video recording device and captured the entire incident on tape. The clip of Allen’s “Macaca moment” instantly went viral and essentially sank his campaign and political career.

In 2005, a campaign operative armed with a recording device was somewhat of a novelty.  No longer.  Every federal campaign and major political committee now employs “trackers” — operatives who follow their candidates’ opponents to every rally and public meeting, hoping to memorialize a public gaffe.  This error is instantly beamed back to headquarters and transformed into an attack ad.  Not even President Obama is immune from the scope of the tracker.  Many may remember that his conservatives “cling to god and guns” comment was recorded via audio during a closed fundraiser in San Francisco.  Dirty politics?  Potentially.  But it’s a new and effective tactic, and both sides are eagerly employing it.

Traditionalists argue that trackers are another signal that campaigns have gone too far, become too vitriolic and invade candidates’ personal lives to a ludicrous extent.  There may be some truth in this, but there is greater merit in an alternative argument.  Because campaigns are aware of the presence of trackers, candidates themselves are generally more cautious and less authentic on the stump.  Voters are therefore cheated and unable to pose tough questions and expect honest answers.

On the other hand, political campaigns have been dirty for quite some time now.  Andrew Jackson insisted to his deathbed that the personal attacks on his wife by John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828 led directly to her death. My guess is that both Jackson and Adams could have handled a 24-year-old staffer with a video camera.  Richard Nixon, as is well known, teetered on the verge of paranoia regarding his political opponents, a paranoia that ultimately sunk his presidency.

As much as most Americans wish the Lincoln-Douglas debates served as the model for the manner in which campaigns are conducted, the reality is that elections are, and always have been, a full-contact sport.

Unlike the act of legislating, which experts agree has only recently become an element of the permanent campaign, opposition research is almost as old as political campaigns themselves.  Some may view trackers as merely an extension of that research.  The 24-hour, for-profit news cycle and the advent of the internet and social networking sites likely also contribute to the public’s quirky and insatiable appetite for watching their public figures say or do the wrong things.

The reality, as is commonplace, likely lies somewhere in the middle.  American voters deserve open and honest reports about their public officials or those running to replace them.  To that extent, trackers can (and sometimes actually do) provide this critical information.  On the other hand, essentially hiring a private investigator to follow every candidate likely leads to fewer authentic exchanges with voters from candidates who fear that a blunder (even an innocent one) will end up on the nightly news.

Cameron Lynch is a former aide to three Republican Senators and president of The Lynch Group, LLC, a Republican government affairs and political consulting firm.