The Hectic Lives of Trackers, Campaign Operatives Who Hunt for Gaffes

A tracker videotapes Sen. Rob Portman at an event in March.
A tracker videotapes Sen. Rob Portman at an event in March. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
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If you’re looking for an entry-level job in politics, and you don’t mind being a thorn in the opponent’s side, campaigns have a gig for you: tracker.

Trackers follow opposing candidates wherever they go and record them with handheld video cameras. If candidates say embarrassing, hypocritical or offensive things, those videos might end up in the next attack ad.

Here are a few things every good tracker needs: a small camcorder, a tripod, extra batteries and a car with a full tank of gas.

That’s according to Republican Cameron Sagester. In 2014, he tracked Democratic candidate for governor Ed FitzGerald and others seeking statewide office.

Sagester says there’s something else trackers need, too.

“I have a thick enough skin where I can act confident enough to try to enter into a venue that maybe I’m not so welcome at,” he says.

Trackers follow their candidates to speeches, public rallies and private fundraisers.

Democrat David Scott tracked Gov. John Kasich for 20 months during the 2014 election. Trackers are free to film in public, but if asked to leave a private event, Scott says, there’s no use putting up a fight.

“You have to do what they’re going to say, I’m not going to get arrested. It is what it is, I mean it is private property,” Scott says, “and when someone tells you you have to leave, you have to leave.”

It’s hard to blend in when you’re pointing a camera at the candidate. Sagester says Democratic staff started to recognize him.

“I wear cowboy boots,” Sagester says. “So there were a number of times where some of the staffers from the candidates in ’14 could either hear or see the cowboy boots and know that, hey, that guy is not allowed to be here.”

It’s up to the trackers to figure out where their candidates will go next. Trackers sign up for fundraising emails from the campaigns, follow candidates’ social media accounts and read local news.

Sagester describes the hours this way:

“Crazy. Crazy. You are on call at any given moment to make sure that you are where the candidate’s going to be,” Sagester says. “Hopefully you’re at every single event that they’re at, so it’s basically like being a full-time candidate.”

If tracking sounds like a grueling job, there’s at least this perk: Scott says he saw every corner of Ohio.

“In my office, I had a state map that I would color in all the counties that I’d go to,” Scott says. “And I had, like, 40 counties.”

In all those hours of work, Sagester says trackers are looking for a sound bite of a candidate slipping up.  

“One bad quote can really create a bad news cycle, can create some content for a negative ad,” he says.

Democratic Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld says Republican trackers followed him during his unsuccessful Senate bid. He recalls seeing a tracker waiting for him outside a campaign event at a private home in the winter. 

“So literally this person stood outside in the cold for probably three hours to get two seconds of footage of me,” Sittenfeld says. “Campaigns at their best are substantive, issue-oriented debates about the direction you want to take the state, or the country or your city. Whereas I think what the trackers are looking for are cheap gotchya moments.”

The trackers beg to differ.

“What you say matters,” Sagester says, “and thinking that you can get away with saying things that could be potentially offensive, I think is an indictment of somebody’s character.”

Candidates usually don’t say very much to their trackers. Scott says Kasich never spoke to him. But that wasn’t the case with every candidate, such as the Republican attorney general.

“Mike DeWine came up and talked to me—actually delivered me water outside of an event,” he says.

Scott says he knows of people who used to track using VHS cameras. But he says smartphones are making the job easier.

“Everybody’s a tracker now,” Scott says. “Everybody’s a tracker with an iPhone.”

And wherever candidates go, someone is there to put them on the record.

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