You're being watched ... by trackers
In competitive races in a competitive state like Arizona, campaign trackers have become a common part of politics.
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Candidates for competitive offices in Arizona are on constant candid camera. People working on behalf of their opponents pop up to take video of them or ask pointed questions, while their campaign staff try to keep them away from events.
It’s called tracking, and it’s done by trackers, the lowest level of political staffers.
Their job, which the Washington Post once called “the most mind-numbing job in a campaign,” is simple: They follow around candidates at their events, the boring stump speeches to local party activists or bland lunches for business groups, recording the candidate’s every utterance. They’re trying to capture the clip that’ll go viral – calling opponents’ supporters “deplorables” or saying “47%” of the country” isn’t worth campaigning to, or any number of other offensive gaffes that’ll land a candidate in a negative news cycle.
In Arizona, each campaign cycle brings more trackers. With tight races and millions in outside spending, candidates, campaigns and outside groups conduct opposition research and track their opponents nonstop.
In years past, trackers’ services were mostly reserved for high-profile races, like the Governor’s Office or U.S. Senate. But now, legislative campaigns in a key district or a hot city race will attract trackers, too. Tracking will pick up after the primary, boosted by partisan groups on both sides.
Trackers are just one part of opposition research, the broad category for what is essentially finding dirt on your opponents. The practice involves digging up old social media posts, past campaign contributions, ties to nefarious people or activities, candidate flip-flops and more. Campaigns or affiliated groups then release their findings either directly or by trying to get media outlets to cover it. (A good media outlet independently verifies any oppo dump they get.)
“It reminds me a lot of the old Spy vs. Spy in Mad magazine,” Jay Ruby, the events chair of the Yavapai Democrats, who has seen trackers and tracked candidates himself at times, told us. “Everybody's trying to get this little edge or catch somebody saying something embarrassing, and you're trying to prevent it.”
Because the job doesn’t require any particular skillset beyond being able to hold a camera phone, it’s often the first entry-level political position for those intent on climbing the political ladder. Republican Arizona Sen. T.J. Shope, for instance, did some tracking a few times while he worked for the Arizona Republican Party in 2006. He followed Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Pederson — when he didn’t get kicked out of his events.
Tracking has always been part of political campaigns, but in recent years, two major outside political action committees have brought it to new levels.
Finding people to talk about the kind of tracking that’s actively happening now is a challenge. Campaigns don’t want their opponents to know they’re doing it or who is tracking for them, though the practice is so ubiquitous at this point that any candidate for any competitive race in Arizona should assume they have trackers on them and act accordingly.
“The first rule of tracking is we don’t talk about tracking,” Republican consultant Chad Heywood told us.
Because of the secrecy that political insiders employ about the art of opposition research, the average voter doesn’t realize the level of influence that trackers can have on elections and political opinion. A fair number of journalistic investigations into politicians and political candidates that voters see in the paper or on TV sprout from oppo research.
As the press corps continues to dwindle, reporters have less time to deeply background candidates. These days, that vetting of candidates — whether that means digging into their pasts or just following them around the campaign trail — increasingly falls to opposition researchers and trackers.
Ideally, a robust local press operates entirely on their own to do all of this vetting. But that’s not reality anymore, and as a voter, it’s important to understand how the news gets to you.
What a tracker does
Candidates often don’t hire trackers directly. Instead, political parties or outside groups contract with trackers, who get assigned to track an opponent through the campaign cycle.
On the right, the main firm that does tracking is America Rising, a political action committee and opposition research outfit that’s aligned behind defeating Democrats. The group says it has the “sole purpose of exposing the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research, and strategic communications.” A tracker job listing from the America Rising Corporation offshoot says the positions “serve as our eyes and ears on the ground, obtaining footage of candidates for public office.”
On the left, American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC, uses trackers and opposition research against Republicans. According to their website, they’re tracking several candidates in Arizona: GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls Mark Brnovich, Blake Masters, Jim Lamon, Mick McGuire and Justin Olson; and GOP gubernatorial candidates Kari Lake, Karrin Taylor Robson and Matt Salmon. A job posting for an Arizona tracker position calls for filming opponents’ events, logging footage, compiling reports and “organizing bird-dogging volunteers.” It pays about $47,000 as a starting salary.
A similar job with the Arizona Democratic Party for a “research tracker” pays about $5,000 a month for “finding opportunities to record opponents, get them on the record, and hold them accountable.”
Trackers are often responsible for figuring out where their assigned targets will be speaking on any given day. That can be a challenge — candidates don’t usually put their speaking events on their websites anymore, so finding out which party meetings or clubs they’ll be at requires some local know-how.
Good trackers have a level of confidence that allows them to blend into a crowd, even though they often stand out as the youngest person in a room. They try to slink into private events, if they can make it past campaign staff who keep an eye out for potential interlopers. Public events are, well, public, so candidates usually just accept they’re being tracked and don't put up a fight.
From there, campaigns or outside groups decide how to distribute the content. They may shop information to media outlets that could end up writing about it, or the campaign or group will put out the video on their own and hope it catches fire. It could become part of a campaign ad.
Often, trackers will spend a whole election cycle tracking a candidate without grabbing one viral clip. But when they do get something, it primarily serves to energize the candidate’s audience of haters. Just as there are “fans” of certain politicians, there are “anti-fans” who are just as obsessed, but in a negative way, Dr. Mary Ingram-Waters, who studies fandoms, said. These haters help amplify the message, which could reach persuadable voters.
“They're really going to kind of use it to build community among other haters, so that they're really energized by how much they deeply dislike a particular candidate,” she said.
On the tracker trail in Arizona
In the inherently creepy world of tracking, the only real rules are not to break the law, to leave when asked and not to talk to the media. Some trackers are more aggressive than others. Some try to ask candidates questions or get them on the record about an issue. Some just observe.
As reporters, we can often spot a tracker at a campaign event because they’re the only people in a press gaggle that we don’t recognize as other media. They don’t have a press badge. They hold a camera or phone, but usually aren’t asking questions of their own. If they have a camera, it’s clearly not a heavy TV camera. They look fresh out of college.
Since everyone now has a smartphone, citizens do some kinds of tracking, too. And with the rise of virtual events since the pandemic, trackers can more easily infiltrate their opponents’ public appearances.
Tyler Kowch was a senior field organizer for the Democrats running in Legislative District 28 in 2020 when events moved online. That summer, the campaign saw people entering their Zoom meetings smirking and asking strange questions, he said.
“They weren’t just listening in, listening to what was going on, taking notes or whatever, they were interrupting to ask their own questions that were really obviously from their side's perspective,” he said.
Democrats were able to confirm that the trackers were tied to their opponent’s campaign because the trackers registered using their own phone numbers and addresses.
The trackers asked leading questions seemingly designed to trap the candidates, like asking Arizona Sen. Christine Marsh whether they could count on her to defund the police. The recorded clips then ended up on a website, heavily edited and cradled with ominous music and text, he said.
But the on-the-ground tracking is still a major part of how opponents gather dirt on each other — if trackers can make it in the door.
Sometimes, trackers become such a recognizable part of a candidate’s life that a natural camaraderie develops between the tracker and the tracked. In the 2012 U.S. Senate race here, for instance, Democratic candidate Richard Carmona, a medical doctor, inspected a bump on a tracker’s leg.
Ruby, of the Yavapai Dems, said two trackers came to a March event the Democratic group put on with Democratic Secretary of State candidates Reginald Bolding and Adrian Fontes and U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran.
Because the Yavapai Dems tape their own events, they don’t allow outside cameras in, Ruby told the trackers. The two trackers asked Ruby to kick them out on tape so they could tell their bosses and go about their day, and he obliged.
“I just gave them what they wanted,” he said. “I said, ‘Sorry, you're not going to be able to film in here today, I'm going to have to remove you from the space.’ And they were like, ‘Great thank you.’”
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Gaffe collectors - The term gaffe may be used to describe an inadvertent statement by a politician that the politician believes is true while the politician has not fully analyzed the consequences of publicly stating it.
That last anecdote is like a manager trying to get tossed out in baseball. "Look I need to fire up the team so I need you to give me the 'ole heave-ho and make it look good!"