‘Gotcha'-getters are now spreading gaffes in real time

Jerry Brown was midway through a discourse about poverty at the San Francisco Faith Forum when he paused, focusing on two young white men dressed in preppy clothing who stood out in the largely African American crowd. One was holding an iPhone at shoulder level, subtly taping the Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s every word.

“We have some representatives for Meg Whitman right in the audience. They’re taking pictures of my speech, and it’s going to go right to Whitman headquarters,” Brown told the crowd before looking directly into the camera to address his GOP opponent: “Meg, I want you to listen when you see this.”

Enter the 2010 political tracker, whose mission is to catch every word a candidate utters so a rival can respond rapidly to his or her claims.

“Tracking has become such a big part of campaigns. Speed is everything. The faster you can turn around information from an event and push back … the better off you’re going to be,” said Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Senate nominee Carly Fiorina. “Modern campaigns who don’t do that are really living in the dark ages.”

Political campaigns: An article in Sunday’s California section about campaign trackers’ growing use of technology to monitor rival candidates’ public appearances said then-U.S. Sen. George Allen was caught making a racial slur by such an operative in 1996. The episode occurred in 2006. —

The Holy Grail for trackers is to capture a “gotcha” moment. One of the most famous occurred in 1996, when U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, called an Indian American tracker “macaca,” a racial slur that helped sink his reelection bid. Such foot-in- mouth incidents are now routinely referred to as “macaca moments.”

Barack Obama had to make amends with rural voters during the 2008 campaign after a blogger caught him saying at a fundraiser that small-town Americans “cling” to guns and religion because of their economic straits.

And just last month, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele received a hailstorm of criticism after a tracker caught him, also at a fundraiser, implying that the war in Afghanistan is not winnable.

Opposition research on candidates is as old as politics, but technological advances and 24-hour-a-day news cycles have increased the prominence and capabilities of trackers, who are typically young volunteers.

“In 1984, we used to carry around a bag of dimes to use pay phones and call headquarters and report on what we heard at our opponent’s rally,” said Rose Kapolczynski, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “Technology has made this so much easier and faster.”

In the 1990s, trackers were using cassette recorders and mailing the tapes to headquarters. Now, with the advent of palm-sized digital video recorders, live streaming and websites such as YouTube, results are practically instantaneous.

The widespread inclusion of such technology on cellphones means anyone can be a tracker. This prompted the Democratic National Committee earlier this year to launch the Accountability Project, asking supporters to tape Republican events.

All of the candidates in California’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races insist they are using only volunteer trackers, and all declined to allow them to be interviewed. The state Democratic Party paid trackers during the primary.

But the candidate with the most extensive tracking operation appears to be Whitman, whose volunteers’ recordings are instantly streamed to a secure website where staffers at headquarters can watch live.

“It allows our campaign to respond to any challenge and set the record straight, while at the same time holding our opponent accountable for his actions and words in real time,” said Sarah Pompei, Whitman’s spokeswoman.

There has yet to be a “macaca moment” in the California races, though various campaigns have tried to make hay with video taken by trackers.

One clip showed Boxer making a statement that seemed to equate military service with being a politician. Another was of Brown saying there is wisdom in “not rocking the boat,” though his campaign says he was talking about judicial appointments, not his philosophy of governance. Whitman’s trackers said they were manhandled at a pro-Brown union event; the altercation was filmed by another Whitman tracker.

Sterling Clifford, Brown’s spokesman, called the focus on trackers “much ado about nothing.”

“For all their grainy cellphone video footage, none of it was footage that wasn’t obtained by TV news cameras,” he said.

But the trackers themselves have made an impression on the candidates. Fiorina has also pointed them out at campaign events, and Brown referred to them as “gnomes” during a radio interview.

The increased prominence of tracking has benefits and pitfalls, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official.

“There is even more emphasis than in the past on slips of the tongue, and very often what trackers capture is not substance but human error. What ends up on YouTube tends to be sensational,” Pitney said.

But “more information is available about a candidate’s positions than ever before,” he added. “So it’s very much a mixed bag.”