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Candid Camera

The search for the next Macaca moment.

“You’re back, William!” Tim Pawlenty called out to the young man with the video camera.

“I am,” William Schoell said as Pawlenty passed by, working his way through the crowd at Carey’s Café and Restaurant in Cherokee, Iowa.

“We missed you,” Pawlenty said. “Where’ve you been?”

“Going where my boss tells me.”

Pawlenty laughed, a note of relief in his voice. Schoell, an Iowa-based video tracker for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, had been following the former Minnesota governor around the state since May. Now it was late July, Pawlenty’s presidential prospects had dwindled, and Schoell’s disappearance from the campaign trail for a couple days was a grim portent. It could have meant that Pawlenty was no longer worth following.

The footage that Schoell gathered from the doomed Pawlenty campaign now resides on the hard drives in American Bridge’s Washington war room, a sprawling unfinished space on the second floor of an upscale Massachussetts Avenue office building. The group has similar caches for other Republican presidential candidates past and present, along with a handful of Senate and House aspirants. The collection is being assembled by American Bridge’s 15 other video trackers and carefully archived and indexed by the 20-odd researchers planted across the long benches of computer monitors. Their aim is to build the largest and most organized stockpile of multimedia opposition research any American political group has ever amassed, a resource that organizations on the left can draw from whenever they need a sound bite of a Republican candidate saying—well, anything a Republican candidate has said.

Republicans have built nothing of the sort and have questioned whether it’s worth the trouble. “In the age of cellphone cameras, everybody thinks of themselves as a tracker,” Carl Forti, the political director of Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads, told The New York Times last summer. What’s the point of expensively duplicating what hundreds of spectators are already doing with their iPhones for free? And American Bridge’s strategy is, in truth, partly the product of necessity. Although the group is the second-biggest Democratic super PAC, to date it has raised only $3.7 million, about a fifth of what Crossroads has pulled in. Carpet-bombing states with TV ads is an expensive business. Opposition research is less so.

But the project is also the test run of a novel idea. American Bridge is the latest invention of David Brock, the apostate conservative journalist turned mercurial liberal activist, and it bears some resemblance to his last project, the Fox News-hounding watchdog Media Matters for America. Media Matters’ signature innovation was using new broadcast-capturing technologies to publicize the incendiary ephemera that used to go unnoticed outside of conservative outlets’ target audience; it was an attempt to tame the partisan noise machine by saddling it with a publicly accountable record.

American Bridge wants to apply the same logic to the 2012 race. The group’s operating theory is that the thousands of hours of footage it has compiled of Republican candidates tacking rightward during the primary can be fashioned into a weapon to wield against them in the general election. The question is whether information technology’s capacity to remember can overcome U.S. politics’ tendency to forget.

VIDEO TRACKERS have trailed candidates as long as there have been camcorders, but the candidates had little cause to fear them until August 11, 2006. That afternoon, Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth, a 20-year-old Indian-American volunteer for Democrat Jim Webb’s Senate campaign, followed Webb’s opponent, Senator George Allen, to a campaign event at a state park near the Kentucky border and rolled tape. Allen, leaning against the corner post of a picnic shelter in shirtsleeves, was proceeding predictably through his stump speech until he turned and addressed Sidarth directly.

“Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here,” Allen called out to applause from his crowd. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia!” The Webb campaign uploaded the video of Allen’s bafflingly obscure racial slur—“Macaca” appeared to be a corruption of “macaque,” an archaic Belgian colonialists’ term for Africans—to the 15-month-old YouTube site three days later. By the end of September, the Republican senator, who had held a double-digit lead over Webb before the incident, was fighting for his political life.

The Macaca moment introduced a new hazard to the political landscape, but campaign strategists never really figured out what to do with it. “That sort of thing is hard to replicate, right?” says Michael Liddell, who was online communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2006 race. Building a strategy around a hoped-for Macaca moment was like planning a household budget around winning the lottery.

Then, in June 2010, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle defeated Sue Lowden in Nevada’s Republican Senate primary, winning the right to challenge embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Angle was an eminently beatable candidate in the general election, known for straddling the line between far-right conservatism and wild-eyed conspiracism, and Reid’s campaign had quietly worked to tilt the primary in her favor. In April, a Reid tracker caught Lowden—a wealthy casino owner—on tape suggesting that people should “barter” for health care, a gaffe that was remarkable enough to make it into a Jay Leno monologue. Lowden never recovered.

Testing Angle’s battier statements on voters that summer, Reid’s staffers discovered something unexpected: Rather than agree or disagree with the statements, Nevadans often simply didn’t believe they were real. “It was that point at which a light bulb went off in the Reid operation,” one campaign staffer told me. “We’re just going to have to go straight to camera.” Henceforth, most of Reid’s TV ads included at least one video or audio clip of Angle’s own voice, culled from conservative talk radio appearances and campaign events; some online ads featured nothing but Angle vérité. Reid won by five points.

Rodell Mollineau, American Bridge’s 35-year-old president, worked on Reid’s 2010 campaign, and American Bridge’s strategy is informed by the lesson of Reid’s victory. The ideological gulf between the Tea Party and the general electorate, Mollineau believes, has grown large enough—more Americans now disagree with the movement’s aims than agree with them, according to a November Pew poll—that footage of candidates saying things they actually mean is almost as useful as Allen-style, off-message disasters. “For the most part,” Mollineau says, “we have found, if you let a Republican candidate talk for long enough, they’ll hang themselves.” Though American Bridge has released bits and pieces of the video it has shot during the Republican primaries, it’s mostly sitting on the tape for now—waiting.

AMERICAN BRIDGE’S targets have adjusted to the omnipresence of their trackers to varying degrees. Rick Perry went so far as to give his assigned minder a press pass. On the Pawlenty campaign, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome eventually set in. The day before he quit the race, the governor called Schoell over to take a picture with him—“In case we never see each other again,” Pawlenty told him.

American Bridge trackers are not participants, even offscreen ones, in the events they film. They don’t shout confrontational questions or otherwise provoke the candidates. The product of their labor has all the verve of a c-span feed, which is the point: The idea is to capture footage that the media will consider trustworthy and useful. “You’re a voter, you’re a reporter,” Mollineau told me. “You start with skepticism: ‘OK, Democratic group bashing Republican candidate. Where have we seen that before?’ It’s another thing to say, ‘Wait—and here’s our proof. Here is the raw footage.’”

Which raw footage gets released, of course, is not incidental. In late July, an American Bridge tracker caught Michele Bachmann telling a town hall crowd in South Carolina that “we need to broaden the [tax] base so that everybody pays something, even if it’s a dollar.” In mid-August, a tracker filmed Perry, speaking to conservative activists in Iowa, similarly bemoaning the “nearly half of the United States population that doesn’t pay any income tax,” and American Bridge circulated the footage. Three days later, The Wall Street Journal carried a lengthy story by Jonathan Weisman on the GOP candidates’ new emphasis on raising taxes on the poor, which led off with the Perry quote, mentioned Bachmann’s, and unearthed similar statements from Mitt Romney to flesh out a picture of what Weisman later described as the “new Republican orthodoxy.”

The episode hints at the more subtle ambitions of the American Bridge project. The current economics of political journalism demand the production of ever larger volumes of reporting from an ever shrinking pool of reporters; the most insignificant of campaign events now warrant coverage even as fewer journalists are there to witness them. An election covered in minute detail, but largely from a distance, offers considerable opportunities for operatives who have cameras on the ground in places where the media do not. Why work the refs, after all, when you can give them the instant-replay footage instead? (And of course, the refs don’t get to see everything: I know the opening scene of this story happened thanks to a snippet of American Bridge tape. What I don’t know is what’s on the rest of the tape.)

Meanwhile, for candidates, even leaving a race doesn’t necessarily provide an escape. In December, Pawlenty was back in Iowa, this time as a surrogate for Romney, whom he endorsed shortly after dropping out of the race. Posing for pictures with his wife, Mary, at Romney’s office in Des Moines, Pawlenty spotted a familiar face. “There’s our tracker!” he said to Mary.

“Tracker dude!” Mary shouted, grinning. “Hi, man—hey, did you miss us?”

“I sure did,” Schoell said. “It’s good to have you back.”

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.