The banquet hall at Buck's T-4 Lodge in Big Sky on June 16 is split roughly 50-50. T-shirts, stickers and signs advertising Sen. Jon Tester's 2012 re-election bid dominate the right side of the room. Supporters of Republican challenger Denny Rehberg populate the left.
Tester's jabs at Rehberg have elicited cheers throughout the 93-minute debate, the first and only one in the race so far. Rehberg's base has answered with equal volume at every opportunity. Moderators have struggled to contain the partisan passions, to no avail. Several women repeatedly heckle Rehberg. As the debate winds to a close, one stands to walk out: "You're a corporate puppet, Denny," she shouts as she heads for the door. Campaign sources later claim that a woman confronted Rehberg's family in the bar outside the banquet hall, shoving the congressman's wife, Jan.
There is at least one sedate member of the audience, a young man in a grey hooded sweatshirt. When the crowds disperse and the candidates head to their green rooms, he quickly moves in behind Tester, training a handheld digital video camera on the incumbent. Tester smiles and shakes hands with supporters, engaging in idle chit-chat. The young man films every second of these interactions, his camera held mere feet from Tester's face.
Since their rise half a decade ago, trackers have become an increasingly common tool for political parties during tense election years. They dog the opposition's every step, documenting their conduct and hoping to capture that single "gotcha" moment that could give their side a leg up. Former Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican, lost his re-election bid in 2006 when he referred to a Democratic tracker of Indian ancestry as a "macaca." The tracker's camera was rolling. Allen's comment likely cost him the vote.
The last six years of American politics are full of examples of how one person with a camera can unravel a campaign. According to a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, however, the primary objective of a tracker is simply documentation. Trackers, at least officially, have more to do with accountability and transparency than cloak-and-dagger politicking.
"Accountability is a good thing," says Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "Some of the stuff Sen. Tester says, he would not necessarily say to a reporter. We want to have our guy around as much as possible to help make sure the public is aware of everything that the opposition is saying."
The young man at the debate—who declined to give his name on the record—is employed by the Montana Republican Party. He follows Tester everywhere, just as the tracker with the Montana Democratic Party follows Rehberg. In the days of social media and rampant outside spending, trackers are just one tool in a toolbox designed to make—or break—a campaign.
Later, Tester's campaign communications director, Aaron Murphy, pulls around front of Buck's T-4 in a beige SUV. He idles there, waiting for Tester to finish his meet-and-greet. The parking lot is devoid of people, save a few Rehberg staffers packing up the congressman's own caravan. And, of course, the GOP's tracker. He stands next to the SUV, camera in hand, idling.
Please leave a message
Democrats currently control the U.S. Senate. They have since 2007, and yet, in 2012, the tables could easily turn. The GOP is a mere four seats away from a majority, and the party means to take those seats; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has rolled out a fierce "Take Back the Senate" campaign. The GOP has trumpeted its chances repeatedly over the past year only to find, in races initially thought to be easy pickings, Democrats putting up strong candidates like former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp and Medal of Honor winner and former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey.
Third-party groups such as the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS have taken up the Senate fight as well, attacking the five Democratic candidates they perceive to be the weakest this year. Pundits across the country have declared 2012 the "Battle for the Senate." One of those battlegrounds is Montana.
Two weeks ago, the latest poll from Rasmussen Reports put Rehberg ahead of Tester 49 percent to 47 percent, with a 4.5 percent margin of error. The two share almost equal name recognition, and their approval ratings in various polls over the past several months have risen and dipped in unison. It's neck-and-neck for the two; Big Sandy farmer versus Billings rancher. Even during the June 16 debate, neither candidate seemed to have a clear lead.
And so it falls on campaigns to keep doing what they've done now for more than a year: push their candidate's message.
The Tester campaign has spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars this year depicting the incumbent as a "straight-talking, hardworking, common sense United States Senator who gets things done," as his campaign website puts it. It's an elegantly simple message: Tester grew up on the family farm in Big Sandy, taught in public school, met his wife Sharla in a church pew and continues to fly home from D.C. nearly every weekend to tend the farm. He is Montana, and at times seems like the kind of guy you could just grab a beer with.
The Rehberg campaign, meanwhile, is reinforcing Rehberg's image. He's a fifth-generation Montanan. He's a rancher, a small business owner, a veteran of politics since the early 1980s. When he appears in ads, he's usually leaning against a fence in a denim shirt, cattle behind him. His campaign has also played up his family-man cred lately, releasing a message from his daughter Katie about battles for the TV remote, among other things. He's so married to his responsibility that he reportedly sleeps on the couch in his D.C. office—an anecdote the congressman's staff have always been quick to relate.
Yet Rehberg's Senate campaign went on the offensive fast. The congressman has focused on a different message this year, trying to tie Tester as closely to President Barack Obama as possible. It's not a new tactic by any means; in 2008, Democratic congressional challenger Jim Hunt tried equally as hard to tie the incumbent, Rehberg, to the administration of President George W. Bush. But to hear Rehberg tell it, you'd think Montana had lost the downhome Tester it elected by a narrow margin over three-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns back in 2006.
It's that message that Pat Williams, Montana's former nine-term Democratic congressman, finds particularly distasteful. Obama is unpopular in Montana and will undoubtedly lose the presidential election here. So Rehberg choses to forgo boasting of his own qualifications and to instead tell Montanans that a vote for Tester is a vote for Obama. Williams knows both candidates personally, considers them friends. But the negativity is too much, he says, and he wonders if Tester and Rehberg even get along in D.C. The rivalry between Republicans and Democrats has, in Williams' eyes, overwhelmed not only campaigns but politics in general.
"Every single person that I ran against or ran against me was a friend of mine," Williams says. "And if not before the campaign, they were good friends afterwards. We liked each other. And Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House liked each other. We just didn't agree on policy."
Tester and Rehberg are likely split pretty evenly when it comes to support. What they're fighting over now is the 15 or 20 percent of voters who haven't yet made up their minds, Williams says. And those voters, particularly the ones who make up their minds at the polls, are highly influenced by negative advertising.
There's a golden rule in political campaigning. To be sure that any given voter remembers your candidate's name when he or she hits the polls, you have to relay your message seven times. Tester and Rehberg have equal name recognition, which means their battle will require a more advanced set of tools.
Linda Vaughey is continually amazed at how vast that array of tools has become since her days as Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices.
"There'd be the literature drops, the yard signs, the newspaper ads, television if you could afford it," she says. "When I look back just a half a dozen years, it was a pretty unsophisticated time when you compare that to what's going on now. It's become much more of a science, and messages are targeted to certain interest groups." Back in 2004, Vaughey says, "we were still struggling with putting together guidelines for candidates to follow when they had websites."
Tweet me money
Websites are standard fare these days. Of course, so too are yard signs, literature drops and television ads. But campaigning in the 21st century has increasingly incorporated social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to push messaging. If anything, Obama's success in the 2008 presidential race proved that to reach the modern voter—particularly the young voter—a candidate has to exist on multiple platforms.
"The difference is there are more ways to get your message out," Vaughey says. "It's more important to use a variety of avenues just because, nine times out of 10, your opponent's going to be. In order to reach the same voters, you have to understand how to use the technology."
Earlier this month, the Tester campaign announced that Pearl Jam would play a benefit concert for the Senator in Missoula Sept. 30. Word spread fast through Montana media and Pearl Jam fan clubs, but in the days following the announcement, the campaign admitted something else: They'd teased the concert the weekend before, using Twitter. Attentive followers of the campaign's Twitter feed had had a chance to get the news ahead of time, provided they noticed that the first letters in a string of tweets spelled out "Pearl Jam."
Twitter and Facebook have allowed the candidates to communicate with voters on a much more frequent and informal level. Tester and Rehberg alike have shared links, posted photos, even cracked jokes using their respective social networks. Just last week, Tester informed Facebook users that he'd be on MSNBC "in 15 minutes" to talk about Citizens United in the wake of the Supreme Court's rollback of Montana's Corrupt Practices Law. Rehberg recently posted a photo of supporters marching in Stevensville's Western Heritage Parade, and one of campaign staffers at the American Legion Rodeo in Augusta. Social media has simply made campaigns more interactive for the voting public, says Bowen Greenwood with the state GOP.
"Many Americans and many Montanans have felt left out of politics in the past, and there's a great desire among our people to have our voices heard," Greenwood says. "That's why Denny Rehberg does so many listening sessions. It serves something in a democracy when the people feel they have an idea about politics and someone listens."
Savvy internet developers are even turning Twitter into a fundraising tool. Two weeks ago, Twitter's commerce platform Chirpify announced the establishment of Tweetlection, a site that allows you to tweet a donation to a political candidate via your Paypal account. The site, according to Chirpify, was built "to bring democracy to Twitter."
For Williams, the campaign trail today winds through a landscape vastly different than the one he traveled for 18 years. Blogs, Facebook, the 24-hour news cycle—people are getting their news more regularly and from a more diverse array of media. Candidates are forced to keep up with a rapidly changing voter culture.
"A huge number of individuals now get their news from the internet, so the candidates have to use it as one of their minions," Williams says. "To show how times have changed, it's only been 16 years since I left Congress and I never received one email. Not one. All handwritten letters, and of course big stone tablets. The world changed in 16 years."
But those changes have come with a sour aftertaste. Williams believes the 24-hour news cycle has "altered America's perception of government" through tireless stories about "something bad happening." Republicans and Democrats alike have spent 30 years "denigrating government and politicians," he says, leaving voters distrustful of both. The internet is particularly rife with negative politicking. Montanans for Tester recently rolled out a new website, rehbergair.com, which offers voters detailed information on 13 luxury trips Rehberg has taken, allegedly on the dime of special interests. The site is designed like a vacation planning page, with links to "five-star dining and drink" and "premium shopping." "Life is good for a career politician with powerful friends," the site states. "But if you're a Montanan who doesn't have lobbyists and special interests eager to send you on 13 luxury trips, you are probably out of luck."
Social networking has opened the door for attacks especially wide. Much of Rehberg's Facebook wall and many of his tweets either refute "the latest liberal attack" or decry Tester's voting record, portraying the incumbent as Obama Lite. The dialogue has increased in frequency not just between candidate and voter, but indirectly between candidate and candidate.
"People expect that if the opponent levels a charge or says something negative about another candidate, they expect that candidate to have a quick response within 24 hours," Vaughey says. "There's a dialogue voters are watching between candidates, and that's interesting."
Andrea Marcoccio, CEO of Forward Montana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and electing young leaders in the state, calls it the "24-seconds-ago news cycle." Social media, and its increasing role in political campaigns, has made it easier for people to catch a candidate's mistake, then hone in on it. "I think we've seen it be detrimental to individuals or campaigns," says Marcoccio, who also worked as a field organizer in Montana for Obama's 2008 campaign. "They say the wrong thing and that becomes the focus for a month, because of a 24-character comment."
The occasional ding on a campaign is well worth the payoff though. Marcoccio thinks voters—especially young voters—are now more exposed to political news and opinion than ever before.
"Ultimately, I think it's information and it's opinion and it's power. I think it's awesome because more young people have access to articles they wouldn't necessarily go and read in The New York Times."
And then there's TV
The camera pans in on a ramshackle Western town. Scraggly weeds sprout at the bases of slat-wood buildings. Digitized dust blows past the screen. An old-fashioned wanted poster has Rehberg's picture, complete with cowboy hat, plastered between the words "Congressman Rehberg, what's wrong with Washington."
The voiceover is ominous, and touches on a key attack point that the left has leveled against Rehberg this year: his voting record on congressional pay raises. The ad, which cost $197,191 to produce and air, is one of two so far paid for by Patriot Majority USA, a 501(c)(4) that touts itself as a group "encouraging a discussion of economic issues in the United States."
Television ads are one of the oldest tools in the campaign toolbox. They provide affordable, easy access to thousands of voters. Based on station ratings, candidates and third parties can gauge roughly how many viewers a single message reaches. And broadcast advertising hasn't lost its touch in the new media world, even colonizing YouTube and Hulu. This spring, the National Republican Senatorial Committee reserved about $3 million worth of Montana airtime for fall 2012. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee followed in lockstep with an additional $3 million. Montana television will be choked with ads from campaigns and outside allies come October.
Even within the microcosm of television advertising, however, there are intricacies at work. Campaigns typically start a cycle by introducing their candidate to voters. It's a positive affirmation of character. According to a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, "There's an incentive to introduce a candidate through a positive ad at first, then develop a bit more of a contrast as time goes on."
The first few ads from the Tester campaign were notably character-driven: Tester fixing the combine, Tester visiting a disabled veteran in the hospital, Tester packing Montana beef with him to D.C. The last one ends on a shot of Tester and his wife eating hamburgers. "I'm Jon Tester and I approve this message," the Senator tells the camera. "And I approve of Sharla's cooking, too."
Rehberg's first ad was a stark contrast. The ad opens with a shot of Tester and the line "Jon Tester's dishonest attacks hide his votes for higher taxes—55 times." Only in the campaign's fourth ad did Rehberg, shown driving a Jeep Wrangler past the U.S. Capitol, introduce himself as a candidate "guided by what's best for Montana."
"The purpose of most political advertising today is to tear down the opponent, and interestingly enough people accept that," says former Montana congressman Pat Williams. "They buy it. They like it. Ads ought to be for the purpose of telling the public what the person paying for the ad—that is, what the candidate—will do for them, not 'why my opponent is a bigger SOB than I am.'"
The negativity playing out on television has only been amplified this season by third-party attack ads, such as the Patriot Majority USA attack on Rehberg. The conservative-leaning Crossroads GPS, another 501(c)(4), aired its first anti-Tester ad nearly a year ago. The spot accused Tester of “reckless spending” in D.C., but stopped short of calling for voters to oust him. Rehberg was never mentioned.
As “social welfare” groups, neither Patriot Majority USA nor Crossroads GPS are required to disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Commission. They are, however, forbidden from direct involvement in campaigns.
The wear factor of all these messages from all these groups can be worrisome for those working to encourage high voter turnout. Television ads clearly still play a key role in modern campaigning, Forward Montana’s Marcoccio says. “But I think the factor in 2012, and similar in 2008, is saturation. How much messaging can the average voter take via television before it’s just in one ear and out the other? How you fight through that clutter is talking to that same voter while the commercial’s on. You get them off the couch and talk to them at the door.”
Do not adjust your set
In May 2011, then-GOP tracker Ethan Heverly was hot on Tester’s heels outside a union-funded dinner, camera in hand. Heverly followed the Senator and his wife across a parking lot, asking why he supported Wall Street banks over Montana’s small businesses. Heverly’s questions went unacknowledged. Tester got into his car and prepared to drive off.
The last few seconds of the video—which is posted on YouTube—are shot mere inches from Tester’s driver seat window. The car backs out, and the camera swings to the ground.
A press release from the Montana Republican Party later accused Tester of running over Heverly’s foot, intentionally. “He clearly turned the wheel of his truck with the intention of hitting me,” Heverly stated in the release. “There was no doubt from the smile on his face that he knew exactly what he was doing.”
The accusation was a clear attempt to discredit Tester. The “gotcha” moment failed to hit its mark, however, and the incident went as unacknowledged as Heverly’s questions to Tester in that parking lot.
Linda Vaughey, the former Commissioner of Political Practices, finds it fascinating how far campaign tactics have advanced in recent years. Even organizations like Forward Montana are helping drive politics to the next level; Marcoccio says her group, in league with affiliates in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, will be rolling out an online voting component to social media this year called “The Ballot.” Add changing patterns among voters, and the modern campaign is a shape-shifter.
“The percentage of people voting absentee now is really having an impact on how resources are allocated in campaigns,” Vaughey says, citing one factor in flux. According to the Montana Secretary of State’s office, 61 percent of voters in the Montana primary this June voted by mail-in ballot. “If you don’t have a pretty good saturation by the time those absentee ballots are sent out,” Vaughey says, “you’re really caught behind the eight ball in terms of perhaps missing a pretty large segment of voters.”
In Montana’s battle for the Senate, each campaign is emptying its toolbox. But they can only control their own tools, making much of this close race about response time. Campaigns create the news they want and respond to what they have to. Charting out strategy, or at least the details, a month in advance is difficult. Plans are made and plans are changed.
Williams believes the best tools are often those a campaign creates itself. They’re different for every campaign, he says. Tester and Rehberg alike seem to be tailoring their messages to Montanans who are right-of-center. Montana may be a red state, Williams says, but he ran nine times without disguising where he stood on the political spectrum. And nine times, he won. “When I ran, I used to say to my ad makers and my staff, ‘Montanans are left of center. They support Social Security. They support Medicare and Medicaid. They like the Interstate Highway System and farm payments. Those are liberal programs. Let’s run like a liberal, but a mountain liberal, not a nanny government liberal.’ And it worked for me. It worked like hell. I was elected more consecutive times than any House candidate in Montana history, saying ‘I’m a progressive.’”
With the Supreme Court’s ruling this month striking down Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, Williams predicts a tsunami of spending from wealthy Republican backers like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, and from unions coming out to support Tester. The messages will blur, the rhetoric will be thick. 2012 may well hinge not on the tools Tester and Rehberg now have, but on their reflexes and agility.