The Democratic National Committee will debut on Tuesday a new web-based feature that will empower several million Democratic activists to serve as "trackers" of Republican candidates throughout the country.
In a move that could add a broad new element of accountability to elections -- or simply make the political process even more gaffe-centric -- the DNC is encouraging its followers to upload video, mail pieces or audio recordings of GOP officials to a DNC-run site.
If carried out as planned, the new online tool could drastically alter the landscape of the 2010 elections, with campaign functions contracted out to hundreds of free volunteers. At a minimum, it is a vivid illustration of the modern-day campaign, where a slip-up by a candidate caught on video could have profound impacts on his or her electoral prospects. Aides freely admit that the goal is to create another "Macaca moment" -- in which former Senator George Allen (R-Va.) famously doomed his reelection hopes by belittling an opposition videographer with a racial slur -- or at least to unearth a viral nugget such as those that changed the course of the health care debate at town halls last summer.
"Macaca was a game-changing event, not only for that race but for others," said Shauna Daly, research director at the DNC who is overseeing the new project. "Certainly it showed people a side of George Allen they hadn't seen before. They just hadn't been exposed to it. And the town halls last summer were amazingly eye-opening to people and video played a major role in it. ... We know that people have cameras everywhere now, whether it is your iPhone or a 200-dollar HD minicam that can take great video. This is something not exclusive to campaigns anymore."
Dubbed "The Accountability Project," the site, which is being emailed to the DNC's massive email list on Tuesday, will serve as a digital library for Democratic officials both state-based and in Washington, D.C. Users are given instructions on how to film a campaign, upload the video, submit copies of mailers or attack ads, record robocalls and place that audio on the web. An official with the DNC will monitor the submissions in addition to cataloging the content. It will be largely left to interested parties -- reporters, ostensibly, included -- to sort through the information for the more newsworthy or inflammatory bits.
"We really do want to take advantage of crowdsourcing," said Daly. "The idea of this is to provide a forum where people who know the issue, the folks who are on the ground in Iowa, can dig through information in the system that someone else in Des Moines has filmed."
The Accountability Project is not the DNC's first crowd-sourcing venture. But the direct encouragement for users to assume the role of unofficial candidate "tracker" represents a far more intense level engagement by ordinary citizens. Already, the presence of videographers at various political functions has produced its share of fireworks for Democrats and Republicans alike. Several weeks ago, video of Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) aggressively tussling with college students videoing him forced Etheridge to issue an embarrassing apology. Similar incidents have occurred on campaign trails this election cycle in which reporters have been videoed being knocked over by aides to candidates.
Daily insists that the DNC is not encouraging aggressive tactics. Indeed, the new website seems practically written by the committee's legal team, with strict instructions for those videoing events not to misrepresent who they are, disrupt the event, attempt to get into restricted or unauthorized areas, or even ask questions.
"We are definitely not looking to be combative or to encourage people to do that in any way," she said. "There is no wink-wink, nod-nod about that. We are explicitly telling people that if you are asked to leave an event in a private location you should absolutely do that... we are really just looking to record what is naturally happening out there."
But the presence of a tracker at a political function can produce more than simply fireworks. It can also have a chilling effect on that candidate, encouraging him or her to offer mundane platitudes in hopes of avoiding a "YouTube moment."
The DNC's bet, in the end, is that this won't be the case. In every election, a candidate must walk the line between the motivational and the provocative. With advanced technology and a swarm of activists comfortable with the applications, the committee is confident that it can outsource campaign operations that used to be strictly in-house.
"I think that every candidate expects that they are being recorded and every campaign staffer would remind them of that pretty regularly," said Daly. "Candidates should expect to be held accountable for what they say. If you're not comfortable with what you're saying, then you probably shouldn't be saying it at all."
UPDATE: RNC Communications Director Doug Heye responds to the new citizen-tracker project by noting that two weeks ago, the DNC was calling trackers a political "gotcha game" when it was Rep. Etheridge being filmed.
It's amazing to see the DNC do a complete 180 and make a stand on openness and transparency. We'd suggest they start by filming White House meetings with lobbyists held at downtown coffee shops to avoid reporting rules or the White House finally providing some explanation of what jobs Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff were offered to stay out of their Senate races and by whom. We'd also suggest they record the Congressional Democrats drafting a budget, but we know no such footage exists.