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Local Candidates Are The Subject Of Political Tracking, Too

Tedra Cobb, the Democrat congressional candidate who was secretly taped talking about gun control, marched in a parade with supporters in Ogdensburg, New York in late July.
Tedra Cobb, the Democrat congressional candidate who was secretly taped talking about gun control, marched in a parade with supporters in Ogdensburg, New York in late July.

It's hard to imagine politics without dirt being dug up on candidates on both sides. That's what political tracking — the practice of following candidates and constantly filming their public statements — is all about. It has been a common practice in big races, but now candidates for local office are also finding themselves under surveillance; political figures at all levels are struggling to adapt.

In upstate NY, a cell phone video goes viral

In early July, a cell phone video surfaced online of Democratic congressional candidate Tedra Cobb speaking at a campaign event for teenage supporters in New York's 21 st Congressional District. The tape is shaky and, at times, out of focus. But it clearly shows Cobb talking about gun control with the high schoolers at her event.

On the video, Cobb says she personally supports a renewed ban on assault weapons — a controversial position in her rural congressional district. Cobb went on to say she had been advised to keep that position private: "Do not say you want an assault rifle ban, because you will not win."

The tape was posted to an anonymous YouTube channel called " Democrat Tracking" on July 9, joining dozens of other recordings of liberal politicians and activists interacting with the public. The next day, the conservative publication Washington Free Beacon published a story about Cobb's statements. The story — and the tape — went viral.

A North Country Public Radio investigation identified the original source of the recording as a 17-year-old rising high school senior in Cobb's district.

Campaign finance records show that the teenager was hired by the National Republican Congressional Committee and paid nearly him $1,000 for "research" and other services. A spokesman for the NRCC said that, as of August, the young man has no active contracts with the Republican organization.

He's now working as an intern on the re-election campaign of Cobb's opponent, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik.

"I've been tracked for years."

Stefanik said her team wasn't responsible for hiring this tracker — or any others. In general, she said her team does not participate in tracking activities.

But the congresswoman hasn't expressed concern about her intern's past work for the NRCC. Stefanik told North Country Public Radio that tracking is common on both sides, with Democrats and Republicans both working to capture their opponents' statements on tape.

"Going back to my first campaign, I've been tracked for years," said Stefanik, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 2014. "I get tracked in Congress. I get tracked outside my home, I get tracked in public events and private fundraisers."

I get tracked in Congress. I get tracked outside my home, I get tracked in public events and private fundraisers.

As a "federal candidate," Stefanik said, that's now par for the course. But even in more local politics and races way down the ballot, tracking is starting to become a fixture.

In the last two years, video or audio recordings have shaken up at least a half-dozen state house and gubernatorial races from Texas to Pennsylvania to Oregon and Michigan. Secret tapes surfaced in a mayoral race in Atlanta. They even cast a shadow on a June 2018 petition drive in the city of Palm Bay, Fla., where Deputy Mayor Tres Holton was accusing of working with his mother to obtain recordings of people asking for signatures.

Early incidents: "Macaca" and Romney 2012

Christian Grose, a political scientist at the University of the Southern California, said the practice of tracking political players on tape has spread far from its roots.

"One of the very first ones I can remember that was a major tracking event was the Virginia Senate race in the 2000s," Grose said, "when George Allen was speaking in a really rural area."

The year was 2006. Allen was seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate when he used the word " macaca" — widely seen as a racial slur — to refer to the tracker who was filming him at a campaign rally in Breaks, Virginia. Allen lost the election by a slim margin.

Six years later, Mitt Romney was caught on tape at a private fundraiser criticizing "the 47 percent" of people who don't pay taxes in the United States. Romney has said that the tape — which was recorded by a bartender working the event and not a political tracker — derailed his campaign.

Over time, said Robin Kolodny, chair of the political science department at Temple University, smart phones have made it much easier to record candidates and share information fast. Kolodny said there's always a risk of being caught on tape, regardless of what office you're seeking.

"You just ought to assume that everything is being surveilled," Kolodny said with a laugh. "Just waiting for a statement that's going to ruffle some people."

Tracking evolves beyond big races

Tracking evolved in large part as a way to generate content for negative ads. Shocking voters has proven to be an effective political strategy in the past, said Boston University communications professor Tammy Vigil.

"For a long stretch, there was a lot of research that actually showed that negative campaign ads could be influential," Vigil said. "And I think we've sort of taken that to the extreme."

Vigil said researchers are just starting to examine what happens when overwhelmingly negative messaging and tactics such as tracking trickle down to local politics.

Around the country, some candidates and elected officials have chosen to cut back on town halls and other public events where they're likely to face tough questions and risk being filmed — or restructure those events so attendees and their questions can be screened ahead of time.

In upstate New York, Tedra Cobb, said she wants to be authentic with voters. "I am going to engage kids and adults to have these hard conversations, and that's what we were doing," Cobb said.

But there's a price to that. Cobb's opponent, Rep. Elise Stefanik, recently put out a political ad with the comments about backing an assault weapons ban front and center.

Rep. Elise Stefanik has made the tracker video and her opponent's comments about gun control into a campaign issue. Stefanik's campaign made it the centerpiece of a new ad in early August.
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Rep. Elise Stefanik has made the tracker video and her opponent's comments about gun control into a campaign issue. Stefanik's campaign made it the centerpiece of a new ad in early August.

"[Cobb] confessed that admitting that in public would destroy her campaign," a narrator says. "If we can't trust Tedra Cobb the candidate, how can we ever trust her in Congress?"

It's a question voters may find themselves asking about candidates closer and closer to home.

Copyright 2020 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.

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