Tracking the presidential candidates on the campaign trail in New Hampshire

Last modified: 5/31/2015 11:07:42 PM
Ryan Williams worked in one of the top communications spots on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, but he has a feeling the former Massachusetts governor will probably always think of him as “the kid in the Red Sox hat with that video camera.”

That’s because that’s how Williams got his start in politics – as an 18-year-old intern who stepped up to the plate when Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign needed someone to follow around his opponents with a camcorder, in case they said something out of line or inconsistent with previous statements. Today, he’s a spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and a senior communications staffer for FP1 Strategies, a Washington-based political firm.

Campaign tracking is hardly a new political tradition, in New Hampshire or nationally. As far back as the 1990s, as reported by the Monitor in 2008, New Hampshire resident Joe Elcock was on the trail – recognized by CNN as one of the earliest campaign trackers.

“Since George Washington’s time, I’m sure opposition parties went to hear what a candidate would say,” Elcock told the Monitor at the time.

But each election cycle, the candidates – and now, outside groups devoted to opposition research – come up with new ways to keep tabs on their opponents, becoming swifter and even more strategic in how they record events and publicize ensuing slip-ups.

When Williams was tracking, he used a bulkier camcorder and had to manually copy the footage. Today, trackers tote around much tinier cameras and have the ability to publicize their footage almost instantaneously – to their bosses or to the rest of the world. And you don’t even have to be an official campaign tracker to capture footage that can change the dynamic of a race – you just have to have a cell phone with a video camera or voice recorder, and access to the internet.

While the technologies and tactics driving campaign tracking have evolved since Williams’s time on out on the trail, the basic principles underlying the practice – according to operatives on both sides of the aisle – have remained fairly consistent. And if candidates haven’t yet accepted the omnipresence of recording devices as an inevitable part of pursuing elected office, they all agreed, it’s time to come around.

New players in N.H.

In New Hampshire, political parties and candidates have long made a habit of sending out staffers or volunteers to try to record their opponents’ events. Now, national groups – like the left-leaning American Bridge 21st Century and right-leaning America Rising, opposition research groups – have stepped in to establish a presence on the ground to track both local and national officials.

American Bridge Tracking Director Rebecca Parks said the group has about 20 trackers working across the country, and it’s in the process of bringing in more. America Rising – formed after American Bridge, as a response to match liberal groups’ level of organization on opposition and rapid response – has trackers working in 36 states, according to Executive Director Colin Reed. 
Both groups currently have men on the ground in New Hampshire.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held a town hall at the Pembroke American Legion in May, an American Bridge tracker was stationed at the back of the room, in a row of local and national reporters, watching a small camera sitting atop a tripod, with a small red box attached to the device. The same tracker was also present, along with another cameraman from a different organization, following along as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham took a quick tour of HL Turner in Concord later that week.

And just a few days before, that same tracker’s footage from an event in Londonderry with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul earned a brief but buzzy moment in the spotlight – after David Chesley, New Hampshire political director for Paul’s presidential campaign – opted to lick the tracker’s camera lens. Within hours, a clip of the confrontation was widely shared online. Some on Twitter dubbed it “Lickgate,” and the New York Times even took note: “Aide To Rand Paul Shatters the Yuck Barrier,” the headline read.

(Campaign finance records and other publicly available posts online identify the American Bridge tracker in New Hampshire as Jason Freeman. When asked in person at a recent campaign stop, Freeman confirmed that he was with American Bridge but deferred additional comments on his job as a tracker to more senior staffers. American Bridge officials declined to confirm the identity of their staffer in the state.)

Meanwhile, Garrett DeVries has also been staying busy on behalf of America Rising – albeit watching candidates on the opposite side. DeVries was waiting in a crowd gathered outside Water Street Bookstore in Exeter with his camera pointed toward the exits, ready for the moment when Hillary Clinton emerged from a meeting with supporters. Earlier this month, according to America Rising executive director and former Scott Brown for Senate campaign manager Colin Reed, DeVries also tracked events with Gov. Maggie Hassan, Rep. Annie Kuster, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and other Democrats. (DeVries also deferred comment on his job as a tracker to his boss.)

The New Hampshire Democratic Party also sends trackers to some candidates’ events, according to party spokeswoman Lizzy Price.

“When Senator Ayotte, Congressman Guinta, or one of the GOP presidential candidates hold an event that is open to the public,” Price said in an email, “it’s not unusual for us to have someone to stand quietly in the back with a camera to record what they say in pursuit of their political ambitions.”

Tech boosts capabilities

Before the dawn of Twitter and YouTube, and more recently real-time live-streaming software, disseminating footage of an opponent’s gaffe used to be much more laborious.

In 2002, the process for Williams when he recorded an event for the Romney campaign looked something like this: He’d have to drive to an event, where (if he was allowed inside) he would record footage on a videocassette, then he’d drive the tape back to campaign headquarters and review the footage with his bosses – and then, if there was something noteworthy, he’d have to make five copies of the recording, drive around Boston to deliver it in person to several local television stations and attempt to pitch it to reporters as a potential story. It could take several days before the moment in question would hit the airwaves.

Now, both American Bridge and America Rising are able to monitor events as they happen – cutting down an already narrowing window between the time it takes for people outside of a campaign venue to find out what’s said there.

While the near ubiquity of cell phone cameras and recorders have made it simpler for reporters and guests at campaign events to quickly post photos, videos and other updates, this election cycle has made it easier than ever to broadcast events in real time. On the 2016 presidential trail, political reporters and even candidates themselves are making use of newly available live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat, which allow people to watch along online.

This, of course, is a welcome advancement for opposition research groups, too.

Trackers with American Bridge are now equipped with their own live-streaming devices, according to Parks – which allow staffers back at the group’s headquarters in Washington to monitor for moments to flag and post within hours, if not sooner.

“We can now cut clips of an event while it’s still happening,” Parks said. As her colleague Kevin McAlister, the group’s deputy communications director, said, “It takes rapid-response to a whole new level.”

At America Rising, Reed said his group has its own “war room” that’s manned from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. – with staffers keeping an eye on trackers’ recordings, as well as what others present (including candidates) might be streaming on their own.

“In this day and age of new technology, anyone with a smart phone and an internet connection can be a tracker, and potentially capture footage that changes the dynamic of a race,” Reed said.

Nuisance or necessity?

Tracking has been criticized, by some, as a technique that’s done more harm than good for the political process. But its defenders say that it’s about more than catching slip-ups and exploiting candid moments for political gain.

While gaffes might get a lot of attention – and, on some occasions, a lot of laughs or raised eyebrows – staffers on both sides say tracking’s real value lies in the potential to catch inconsistencies. When you have an eye on the candidate at (almost) all times during his or her public appearances, it’s easier to see whether what they’re telling their constituents in one place is the same as what they’re saying to people in another.

“To me, it’s not about causing a fuss when someone licks our camera – that’s not the point of tracking,” Parks said. “The point is to hold people accountable and to have a record of what they’re saying to the public.”

(Still, that hasn’t stopped American Bridge from drawing attention to the camera-licking incident on its website in a post highlighting “The Best of Lickgate.”)

A similar philosophy applies on the other side, too.

“If elected officials and candidates know they’re being tracked and filmed at public events,” Reed said, “it makes them be more consistent with their message, and do the things they said they would do on the campaign trail.”

In many cases, to track a candidate’s statements most effectively, the team doing the tracking needs someone who’s willing to show up and at least try to attend as many of their opponents’ events as possible. Today, too, it’s no longer a role that’s only reserved for interns, volunteers or junior staffers: The officials at American Bridge, in particular, said they have found it helpful to have trackers who stay in the position for longer than just one election cycle.

And if an aspiring political operative tries out tracking and establishes a reputation as a reliable, persistent recorder, it can pay off in the long run.

“In a large campaign, it can set you apart and show the higher-ups that you’re aggressive, willing to do what’s needed to advance the cause and put you on a track potentially toward bigger and better jobs,” Williams said. “You not only get noticed by senior staff, you get noticed by the candidate.”

Don’t just take his word for it, though. He has the handwritten note – framed with a front page of the Boston Herald after Romney’s gubernatorial victory – hanging on the wall at his office to prove it.

“Ryan, Thank you for your hard work and dedication,” the note reads. “You fought for us in the ‘video pits’ and came out a winner. Great job! Mitt”



(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)




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