U.S. Senate candidate Patty Judge’s campaign hopes by not announcing events they can avoid trackers, operatives who videotape candidate appearances on the lookout, in part, for “gotcha” moments.
Unannounced campaign events — in which news media representatives often are not in attendance to report on candidates’ comments — are increasingly common. But political scientists and a voter advocacy group say the trend could hurt campaigns and lead to a less well-informed electorate.
“I do think it’s a loss,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, “You’re not going to reach all the voters you need to reach with unscheduled, invite-only events.”
The tracking phenomenon started at least 10 years ago, with one of the early gotchas on Aug. 11, 2006, when George Allen, a Republican senator from Virginia, singled out a tracker by calling him “macaca,” which means monkey. The slur went viral and was considered the reason Allen lost.
In 2012, a leaked video showed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney telling people at a private fundraiser the 47 percent of Americans who would vote for then-candidate Barack Obama would do so because they believe they are entitled to government aid and pay no taxes.
“There’s no question that hurt and did real damage to my campaign,” Romney later told Fox News.
The right-leaning America Rising political action committee capitalized on former Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley’s videotaped comments that if he wasn’t re-elected, “a farmer from Iowa” might be in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Braley, a Democrat, lost and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is leading that committee.
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“The thing that has driven its (tracking’s) growth is easily available video on the web,” said Mike Gehrke, a Washington, D.C., Democratic political consultant considered one of the pioneers of tracking.
But he thinks the practice has changed for the worse.
“Trackers now are more aggressive,” Gehrke said. “They record candidates not only at events, but with their families, their staff. They’ve gone from observers to participants, asking questions.”
Jeff Link, a Judge adviser, said aggressive trackers were the reason the campaign decided to not announce most campaign events.
“I wouldn’t describe it as confrontation, but it’s antagonistic,” Link said. “For example, if you’re walking in a parade and there’s someone following you recording your interactions, those kinds of things are antagonistic.”
Priorities for Iowa, a conservative Super PAC led by Jimmy Centers, a former aide to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, is among that groups tracking Judge. Centers published a video June 20 in which Judge tells people at an outdoor event she’s “as partisan as anybody going.”
Unscheduled campaign events
The Patty Judge for Iowa website does not list any upcoming campaign events for the Democratic former Iowa agriculture secretary and lieutenant governor. News releases that do announce events require people to sign in with the campaign to learn times and locations.
Judge’s Twitter feed in May and June showed her meeting with small groups from Algona to Washington, but those events were by invitation only.
Grassley visits most of Iowa’s 99 counties each year with town hall-style meetings announced on his official Senate website. But other appearances are not made known to the public or the media. For example, Grassley was scheduled to speak to the National Governors Association summer meeting in Des Moines Friday, but the event wasn’t on the official calendar.
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As far as Grassley Works campaign events, invite-only fundraisers and staff organizational events are the norm — not a new reaction to trackers, campaign manager Robert Haus said. Democratic trackers regularly attend Grassley events, but usually don’t ask questions or disrupt the talk, Haus added.
“As a candidate, you have to know there are always people potentially recording what you’re saying,” Haus said. “You’re transparent or you’re not.”
Trackers have attended some events of Monica Vernon, a Cedar Rapids Democrat seeking Iowa’s 1st District seat, campaign manager Michelle Gajewski said. But the campaign still is announcing public appearances, including a small business roundtable June 30 and a parade on July Fourth.
Jeff Patch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep Rod Blum, R-Dubuque, declined to comment about trackers. Blum, a first-term House member, said he will skip the Republican National Convention this week in Cleveland to campaign, but said he will focus on phone calls and door knocking.
“We’ll announce public campaign events as they are confirmed,” Patch said.
Blum has a handful of announced public events that are part of his official duties for the House.
Myrna Loehrlein, president of the Linn County League of Women Voters, said candidates should be held accountable for speech caught on camera — as long as trackers aren’t editing the sound bites or removing context. She also thinks campaign events should be open to all voters.
“Candidates need to be certain every voter has good access to them and their positions,” Loehrlein said.