Tracking Politicians: How Democratic Operations Have Changed Elections - And How Republicans Plan To Catch Up

 @pemalevy
on September 13 2013 8:51 PM

In the summer of 2011, Jon Bruning, an up-and-coming Nebraska politician with all-American good looks, was on his way to becoming the state’s next U.S. senator. Sure, the election was more than a year away, but pundits agreed the Republican was the heavy favorite to oust the vulnerable incumbent, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

But, in August, Bruning’s luck began to change. Nebraska’s attorney general since 2003 found himself on a growing list of politicians who have said something offensive and had the misfortune to have it caught on camera. In Bruning’s case, he compared welfare recipients to raccoons.

Bruning’s campaign speech at the Heartland Liberty Fest in Papillion, Neb., began with a boilerplate conservative attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental regulations. A local construction project had been put on hold so as not to harm an endangered beetle species. Bruning described a laborious process wherein biologists placed rat carcasses in the bottoms of buckets to entice the beetles in, then dumped the beetles a few miles down the road so they would survive the construction. But the plan ran into a problem.

“The raccoons figure out the beetles are in the bucket, and it’s like grapes in a jar,” Bruning said in a memorable moment captured in a video now on YouTube, moving his hand as if he were scooping handfuls of grapes or beetles into his mouth. That’s when his comments took an unexpected turn. “The raccoons, they’re not stupid, they’re going to do the easy way if we make it easy for them -- just like welfare recipients all across America. If we don’t send them to work, they’re going to take the easy route.”

In the audience was a tracker recording audio and video of the speech for an upstart political-research group called American Bridge 21st Century, a fledgling group out to collect dirt on Republican candidates and use it against them. American Bridge, a super PAC and affiliated 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization founded only a few months earlier by David Brock, who runs the media-watchdog group Media Matters, had caught its first big break. Thanks to American Bridge, Bruning’s first major introduction to Nebraska voters in his Senate race was this video, and the comments dogged his campaign for weeks.

“That was the first time I realized that this actually could -- that we’re on to something here,” Rodell Mollineau, the president of American Bridge, said during an August interview with the International Business Times at the super PAC’s offices in Washington. (A super PAC is a political action committee that, since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010, is allowed to accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations but is legally barred from coordinating with any candidate’s campaign.)

American Bridge was just getting off the ground when Bruning gave them a choice morsel. The group had officially launched that April, hired a research director in May and was finishing up its first research book -- typically, a massive tome as long as 500 pages -- on a Republican candidate. By the end of the election cycle, American Bridge was widely considered one of the election’s greatest success stories, including, grudgingly, by their enemies. They had changed the way successful outside groups operate.

Going forward, both parties now believe elections will be heavily influenced by American Bridge-style organizations, led by an army of trackers catching everything on camera.

At American Bridge, dozens of trackers across the country follow candidates in their states who are running for the House of Representatives, Senate and the White House, as well as governors’ mansions. Trackers attend and record all of their candidates’ events and tune in to all of their television and radio appearances. Their footage goes to headquarters in D.C. where research and communications teams determine whether any of it can be employed in a social-media campaign, posted on YouTube or disseminated to outside groups to use in television ads. Everything is put into a massive database and can be used at any time.

Several factors ultimately led Bruning to lose his primary race the following May to state Sen. Deb Fischer, who went on to capture Nebraska’s Senate seat, but American Bridge had dealt the first blow. Mollineau lamented that the Bruning video failed to deliver the seat to a Democrat. But the group can take credit for protecting a different Senate seat last November.

American Bridge was watching when, on Aug. 19 of last year, Republican Senate hopeful Todd Akin of Missouri went on a local television show and uttered one of the most famous lines of the election cycle: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The group’s tracker in Missouri was watching the show and flagged it to his colleagues in Washington, who immediately posted a clip of the remarks on YouTube, then sent it to a handful of reporters. The comments killed Akin’s chances of unseating another vulnerable incumbent, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, as John Podhoretz, the editor of the conservative Commentary magazine, observed on Twitter a few minutes after the first news story using American Bridge’s clip appeared online:

 

Podhoretz was right. American Bridge had won its first Senate seat and ultimately helped Democrats keep control of the upper chamber of Congress.

Going into the next election cycle, American Bridge knows it has to be even smarter and more efficient than before, largely because Republicans are catching up. As Mollineau and his team adapt to post-2012 political reality, Republicans have launched their own tracking and research firm, America Rising. The new group plans to do for the right what American Bridge did for the left, albeit with their own Republican twist. A variety of practices made American Bridge a key player in 2012, so the questions are whether and how Republicans can catch on.

In many ways, American Bridge represents what a modern campaign operation should look like -- something of which the Republicans trying to copy the model are well aware.

For starters, the group streamlines the research, tracking and communications shops into one big operation. “No one at this point had ever put all three of them together in the way that we had,” Mollineau said.

At the core of the process are those trackers in the field, following candidates to every event, catching when they change their positions or make a rare gaffe on the stump. On top of that, researchers in Washington who have put together reams of research on the candidates review the work of the trackers so they can easily spot when a candidate has strayed from a previous position. When those gaffes and inconsistencies are spotted, the communications team can market their findings in a clever video, microsite or any other form of social media to get people’s attention. They also give the footage to other third-party groups so particularly choice remarks can quickly end up on television or radio. “Each part makes the other part more valuable,” Mollineau said.

The near-perfection of this method turned one of Mitt Romney’s offhand statements into one of his more memorable gaffes. Dogged by questions about his finances during the Republican presidential primary, the wealthy former governor of Masschusetts commented in January of last year: “I get speakers’ fees from time to time, but not very much.” An American Bridge tracker taped the comment, as did several media outlets. Back at American Bridge headquarters, where a big research book on Romney had been compiled, they knew exactly how much “not very much” really was: $374,327.62 in a 12-month period. Within hours, American Bridge was circulating a video now on YouTube of Romney’s remarks that tallied up his speaking fees with the ka-ching sound of a cash register. The text in the video read “Not very much to who?” as Romney is heard chuckling in the background.

The video not only captured Romney’s remarks, but also portrayed Romney as out of touch with ordinary Americans -- a main line of attack Democrats were using against the multimillionaire candidate. Romney’s “not very much” line made the evening news that night. The relevant portion of the video was played on more than 100 local NBC affiliate stations the next morning. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” brought up the issue. On Comedy Central, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” built a segment around Romney’s out-of-touch remark.

American Bridge had hit the media jackpot. Even better, it had helped Democrats pin the rich-guy persona on Romney. “Who the hell thinks $374,000 isn’t a lot of money?” Mollineau asked, then provided the answer: “Mitt Romney.”

Republican strategist Tim Miller, the newly minted executive director at America Rising, recognizes that Republicans fell behind because they didn’t streamline their work the way American Bridge did. They were stuck in what Miller dubs the George W. Bush model. Miller, a former representative of the Republican National Committee, describes a campaign operation dating back to 2004 where “research guys in the basement” put together massive research books that got passed to a communications team, then to an advertising team, with each stage isolated from the other rather than collaborative. That model doesn’t make sense anymore,” Miller said.

His goal for America Rising is that everyone will understand the news cycle and come up with ideas to push their message. “If you’re doing this work, you need to get how I can take a nugget of oppo research and give it to BuzzFeed and make that a news story that then turns into something you can send around to other reporters,” he said. Trackers hoping for a gig at America Rising should expect to be asked who they follow on Twitter during the interview process.

Research and communications are basic to campaigning and have been for decades. But tracking, the third component, is a comparatively new development that is uniquely suited to the 24-hour news cycle, social media and the pervasiveness of video technology.

Even as technology transforms campaigns and elections, it turns out that some of the old-fashioned, human work remains most critical. To supply the tweets, Tumblr posts and rapid-response videos behind the daily multimedia campaign blitzes and ads, trackers monitor each candidates’ every move. They are the foot soldiers in the new kind of election warfare.

Trackers began to show up at campaign events around 2004, but it was the 2006 Senate race in Virginia that transformed it from an obscure to an essential practice. That August, a college student named S.R. Sidarth was tracking incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen for his challenger, Democrat Jim Webb, when Allen recognized Sidarth and decided to call him out. Sidarth is of Indian descent, and rather than use his name, Allen used a racial epithet. “This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he’s with my opponent,” Allen said, as shown in yet another video now on YouTube. “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The comments cost Allen his Senate seat. “It was a watershed moment. It was the first real, true gaffe caught on monitoring,” Mollineau said.

By 2008, tracking had become commonplace. By 2010, it was completely normal. And, in 2012, trackers were everywhere. Even Bruning used trackers on his primary-election rivals.

The utility of tracking lies not only in catching those Macaca moments, but also -- and arguably more importantly -- in catching discrepancies in candidates’ positions. As both Mollineau and Miller warn, the days are gone when a politician could say one thing at the senior center and another at the chamber of commerce. To do their work, professional trackers get unique looks at the candidates and their campaigns, memorize their stump speeches and know the instant a candidate has gotten him- or herself into trouble.

Trackers are generally young and looking to break into the world of political campaigns. For them, tracking offers a good foundation in how campaigns are run, as well as essential digital-media experience. American Bridge prefers to hire trackers with at least some campaign field experience under their belts so they know they’re up to the task, and their trackers usually reside in the states of the candidates they are tracking. It’s a fairly solitary venture, crossing enemy lines to film the opposition, being the fly on the wall, often with little interaction with other event attendees. An American Bridge tracker will follow one or sometimes multiple candidates, depending on the state. Campaigns will often hire trackers or send interns to track their opponents, but the long-term work American Bridge’s trackers do, with detailed reports and video archiving, is the more comprehensive approach America Rising is looking to duplicate.

How American Bridge Works

American Bridge’s trackers are trained to use video equipment and file detailed daily reports on what the candidates said along with their video footage to help the researchers in the campaign’s war room in Washington figure out whether there is anything in the day’s events that can used immediately. The footage, along with media appearances, goes into a massive database that American Bridge is currently updating so that it can be searchable by key words. Need to see everything a candidate said about Social Security over the last few years? American Bridge has it all on video. In the next cycle, American Bridge plans to have about 50 trackers in the field and 40 more people in D.C.

In general, “you’re not getting the George Allen moments or the Todd Akin moments -- you’re getting policy stuff,” said a former tracker who covered the Republican presidential primary candidates in New Hampshire in 2011 and early 2012.

Getting a sense of the candidates and their personalities comes with the territory. “Rick Perry’s were the funnest events because Rick Perry is just a funny guy,” said the New Hampshire tracker, who preferred to remain anonymous due to current campaign work -- an irony of overly cautious campaigns since tracking is about publicizing what politicians say. Perry would speak to the tracker until he realized that the tracker was, in fact, a Democratic tracker. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, would discuss the campaign with the tracker once the camera was turned off. “Mitt Romney would just flat-out ignore me,” the tracker recalled.

One politician notably kind to his trackers was Republican Tim Pawlenty. The day before ending his campaign, the former Minnesota governor asked his tracker to take a picture with him because he might never see him again.

Others are notably not as nice. Former Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida, the tea-party firebrand who lost his House seat in November, came close to inciting riots against the woman tracking him for American Bridge. West would call his tracker names, “creating a pretty hostile environment,” said Kelli Farr, American Bridge’s tracking director. “It even got into some kind of hostile situations where they were pushing her out of the door or getting in her face and screaming cuss words.”

West suffered little blowback for his antics, but, as tracking becomes increasingly common, politicians will likely learn that it’s best to let them be. Josh Mandel learned this lesson in 2012. Ohio’s state treasurer, a Republican who tried to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown last year, learned it when he ended up in an elevator with his American Bridge tracker and tried to grab the camera away from him. Unfortunately for Mandel, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch was also in the elevator, and the entire encounter ended up in the newspaper. 

Tracking ultimately results in the product that American Bridge so adeptly used to attack Republicans, often through very public social-media campaigns. But a significant part of the organization’s success was behind the scenes. After Democrats won resoundingly on Election Day 2012, it was clear that Democrats had, with the help of American Bridge, outmaneuvered Republicans, but, in fact, when American Bridge launched in the spring of 2011, it was Democrats who were playing catch-up. And they did so using a tool most of them had publicly eschewed.

In January 2010, when the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, opening the floodgates to unlimited spending in elections by third-party groups, Republicans were quick to exploit the new possibilities for raising and spending money. Democrats hung back. The left generally didn’t agree with the ruling, and most donors registered their objection by continuing to give to campaigns rather than outside groups. The result was disastrous. After the Democrats’ rout in 2010, some Democrats grudgingly decided that they had to play ball. They needed to build a third-party apparatus as well.

The genius of American Bridge was not just in getting research and footage on Republican candidates, but also in sharing it with other third-party groups to use in their ads. Instead of every group investing in research and tracking, American Bridge would do it for them, streamlining the process. Through American Bridge, the Democratic side had a coherent message, research and high quality video.

“They were certainly our eyes and ears on the campaign,” said Jeff Gohringer, a representative of the League of Conservation Voters, whose political arm spent $15 million in the 2012 elections. Groups such as the LCV Action Fund could use American Bridge’s material at no cost, freeing them to invest in ads.

Take Romney’s impolitic comment during the primary-election season that illegal immigrants come to the U.S. looking for a “free deal.” The comment didn’t go viral at the time, but the video taken by American Bridge was used in Democratic Spanish-language ads attacking Romney. Priorities USA Action, the super PAC launched by President Barack Obama’s former aides to help re-elect him, collaborated with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, on a number of ad campaigns, and they made sure Spanish media viewers saw Romney’s comments.

“[American] Bridge, I think, provided an invaluable service in terms of putting trackers on different races, collecting information about all the different candidates and packaging it up in a way that was useful in media markets all over the country,” said Bill Burton, a Priorities USA co-founder. The result was that the last cycle was “one of the most coordinated efforts we’ve ever seen Democrats engage in.”

Burton’s group was largely credited with having some of the most effective ads of the entire cycle. “I think they were very helpful, no doubt about it,” he said of the role American Bridge played in their success.

American Bridge did tracking and research, Priorities USA attacked Romney, super PACs sprung up to elect House and Senate members, and many groups collaborated on ad campaigns, with “everyone singing off the same hymn sheet,” Mollineau said, “making the process more efficient.”

The organization’s behind-the-scenes role “might be the most important thing that they do,” Miller said, adding that it’s a top priority for his organization, too. Miller recalled how Democratic groups during the last cycle had compelling footage of their Republican opponents while Republican groups’ ads used the tired technique of slowly zooming in on an image of a candidate.

How America Rising Intends To Work

The Republicans’ response to American Bridge, America Rising, seeks to fill the same role, but through a slightly different route. Rather than set up as a super PAC and affiliated nonprofit, as American Bridge was, America Rising is a private limited-liability company and affiliated super PAC. Operationally, the difference is that whereas Mollineau’s team can hand off their work to any third-party group, they can’t coordinate with campaigns. Miller’s group will be able to sell their footage to anyone, including their own super PAC, other third-party groups, campaigns and party committees, although it will have to charge market rates. In 2012, Democratic campaigns still used trackers because they had to own their footage to use it in ads -- American Bridge’s footage couldn’t be used unless it was posted publicly, as on YouTube, to avoid unlawful coordination. As one-off super PACs continue to pop up (usually so a wealthy donor can throw a few million dollars at a particular race), America Rising can make those groups effective and keep them on message.

While America Rising is still very much a startup, Miller noted it will be engaged in around 10 Senate races and 20 to 30 House races in the 2014 midterm elections and ready to go for the presidential race in 2016. It wasn’t until the end of the summer that America Rising really became operational, and Miller declined to speculate about how many people it would hire or how much money it expected to ultimately raise. At the helm of the new group with Miller are former Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder and Republican strategist Matt Rhoades, who served as campaign manager for Romney in 2012 and campaign research director for George W. Bush in 2004. The group’s for-profit arm had taken in just $22,000 as of the end of June, but Miller said it didn’t start fundraising in earnest until July. (American Bridge’s super PAC and nonprofit arm together brought in around $17 million during the 2011-2012 cycle, giving it an extraordinary bang for its buck, compared with the hundreds of millions other super PACs spent last cycle.)

Miller sees ample opportunity for his group in 2014, when vulnerable Democratic senators will seek re-election in red states that Romney won last November. He predicts a “big divide” between what senators such as Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor will say in Washington, where he described the progressive left as “emboldened” on issues such as gun control, and what they will say on the stump in their home states. “I think that Rodell and those guys underestimate the hypocrisy on their side. There’s plenty to be exposed.”

Mollineau knows his group needs to stay ahead of the game, but expresses skepticism that Democrats are really as vulnerable to tracking as Republicans, who are often veering to the right to appease the tea party or a Republican primary challenger. “I do not know what the liberal equivalent of comparing immigrants to dogs or legitimate rape or rape being God’s will or immigrants are just coming to this country to get a free deal [is],” he said, referencing a host of offensive comments from Republicans last cycle. “I don’t know what kind of comparable rhetoric there is on our side.”

“I think Democrats should be worried,” Burton said. “Democrats should be very mindful that we can’t take our foot off the gas or those Republican efforts will indeed be successful.”

How will American Bridge stay ahead of the curve? “I’m sure they’ve got very smart people working on that right now,” Burton said.

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