WATERLOO — Eddie Mauro, a Democrat challenging U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, saw his campaign go off track quickly after someone filmed him appearing to belittle her military service.
The person behind the camera at the May 20 event in Carroll was a political tracker.
He captured Mauro saying serving in the Senate requires a “different kind of courage” than the courage Ernst showed as a combat veteran.
“In military service, you kind of fall in line. They tell you what to do and you do what they tell you to do, that’s what it’s supposed to be about,” he continued. “In public service I think there are times you need to step out of line to say, I’m sorry Mr. Trump, you’re wrong.”
Mauro later told the Courier it was a calculated political hit.
“Our friends across the aisle are going to take anything they want, they’re going to try to mislead and con and trick people by using what I had to say to drum up interest on their side,” Mauro said.
That’s the specialty of political trackers, say politicians and political academics. With today’s 24-7 news cycle, trackers have become a constant in modern politics.
“You’re going to find them much more prevalent in presidential campaigns, statewide campaigns like for governor or the Senate, but also in congressional campaigns,” said Fred Waldstein, a professor of political science at Waverly’s Wartburg College.
Trackers have been around for a while, Waldstein said. But only in recent years have they become part of campaign strategy.
Trackers work for political action committees. Their sole purpose is to expose candidates’ gaffes and political missteps.
“I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve been,” Mauro said. “They’re going to videotape you and catch everything you say and look for something you may say off-hand.”
Trackers work on both sides of the aisle.
“They have never stopped,” said Ernst of her experience with the track pack. One tracker began following her soon after she announced her U.S. Senate run in 2014 and has dogged her for five years. It doesn’t bother her, she said.
“When I’m opening up to constituents they might as well come in too,” she said.
But sometimes trackers get too close, and that concerns Iowa’s junior senator.
“There are those trackers that get very aggressive. ... As long as they’re respectful and keep their distance, then I don’t have a problem,” she said.
Mauro feels the same way.
“I welcome them each time I see them,” he said. “Usually they’re young college students or maybe recently out of college — folks paid to go around and shoot this video.”
It’s the organizations that use videos out of context that alarm Mauro.
America Rising is a right-leaning political action committee focused on Iowa’s 2020 Senate election. The group’s “sole purpose (is) exposing the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research and strategic communications,” according to the organization’s website.
The tracker who recorded Mauro’s comments about Ernst was from America Rising, according to the organization’s website.
Following Ernst is a tracker from American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC focused on opposition research, tracking and rapid-response campaign communication. Established in 2011, it often has Ernst in its sights.
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“Our goal is pretty simple: We want to beat Republicans and help elect more Democrats at various levels of public office,” said Shirpal Shah, American Bridge vice-president.
Waldstein said there are two types of trackers.
“Passive trackers are simply those that show up. They’ll often be there just to video the candidate or watch the candidate,” he said. “(An) active tracker, which is somewhat more pernicious, is when the trackers try to provoke and engage the candidate into saying something or doing something that could be potentially embarrassing.”
Many campaigns try to make it more difficult for trackers by making events invitation-only or using sign-in boards.
State Auditor Rob Sand experienced trackers firsthand during three days of town halls across Iowa to announce his effort to make state government more efficient.
“We had one or two individuals at every event taping everything I said,” Sand said. “... We had confirmation from one of them that they were trackers from America Rising. They didn’t contribute to the conversations at the meeting. They just stood there and videotaped everything.”
At one point, Sand said, a tracker followed him to the restroom.
“He didn’t quite follow me into the restroom. I was going there and about to open the door and he asked me a question,” Sand said.
Sand has tweeted about the trackers who follow him and has offered to live stream his events so America Rising could donate the money it’s spending on trackers to flood relief in western Iowa.
“It’s such a waste of resources,” he said.
America Rising did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
At American Bridge’s peak in 2018, it had 35 trackers on staff spread across 28 states. The trackers’ travel more than 850,000 miles, covering more than 11,000 events in 164 state and federal races, Shah told The Courier in an email.
“In total, our video archives (where we store our tracking and media monitoring content) are now home to more than 25,000 hours worth of footage of Republican officials.
“Our trackers monitor anything and everything that they can find in the public realm, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or a candidate’s website or emails that they send out to identify opportunities to go film and watch what they have to say.”
Ultimately, Shah said, American Bridge’s goal is to hold candidates accountable.
Waldstein believes trackers will have a greater impact on the 2020 elections compared with previous races.
“They certainly have an impact on how candidates try to behave,” Waldstein said. “All candidates are aware trackers are out there now, so they try to make sure they minimize their potential for gaffes that could be manipulated or in some way turned into items that could be used against them.”
The bigger the race, the greater trackers’ influence could be, Waldstein said.
Trackers were credited with hamstringing former U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s 2014 Senate campaign against Ernst. A video released by America Rising showed Braley calling Sen. Chuck Grassley “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” in January 2014.
Trackers will use those same tactics to try to influence voters in the 2020 election.
“Fundamentally, what’s disappointing about that to me is that it is a distraction from what politics should be about,” said Sand. “Politics should be about trying to find a solution to actually make things better.”