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Spying on candidates may be unsettling, but is it really such a bad thing?

Cue the James Bond theme as we take up electoral espionage. We’re talking campaign black ops. Political spying.

We learned this week that Republicans here in Michigan sent two young operatives equipped with a tiny video camera in a pair of glasses to infiltrate a Mark Schauer for Governor campaign event -- looking for whatever they might find. And what did they get? Found out.

Our ace operatives bungled the job. Dropped the disc with the video where it was found by Democrats. Who, then, made it public, including their brief conversation with Dem lieutenant governor candidate Lisa Brown.

Republicans didn’t deny the operatives were theirs.

Democrats and the Schauer campaign cried foul calling it sneaky, dirty tricks. They got some newspaper headlines. Effective messaging helped along by the fact that it fit did neatly into a narrative courtesy of some missteps -- or what seemed to be missteps -- by Governor Rick Snyder’s campaign.

Earlier this year, a videographer with a history of working for Snyder showed up a Schauer event pretending to be a CNN cameraman. Then there was the Snyder campaign intern, a wannabe mole, who tried to get a job with the Schauer campaign.

But the reality: “let’s go to the videotape” is no longer just a line on a newscast -- it’s a campaign tactic.

We can’t forget Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney being clandestinely taped speaking to mega-donors, making his infamous “47 percent” comment. That was certainly never meant to be made public. But when it was, it was a huge blow to the GOP campaign.

But here’s another dirty little secret: Everybody does it. It’s true. Wall-to-wall tracking of candidates at public appearances and private closed-door fundraisers, and secretly taping those appearances, is all part of modern campaigning. Here in Michigan, Democrats even have a name for their black ops candidate tracking operation: The Accountability Project.

And we know this because a top Democratic operative talked about it at a meeting with party activists. Kevin Hritt is a campaign aide to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Gary Peters:  

“One of the best things we can do to help our Democratic candidates is get the Republican candidates talking to Republicans about the things they believe in.”

In the tape, Hritt says the point is to go and catch Republicans saying something different in a private setting than what they say in a public setting. That’s spying, and it requires infiltration skills, secrecy, and stealth.

And we know about this meeting because it was clandestinely taped by a GOP operative (and the party shared it with us).

Yes. Even the operatives go around secretly taping each other. It’s very Spy Versus Spy.

But is this really so bad? We’re all worried about NSA eavesdropping and all, but maybe it’s also a good thing to have a sense of what candidates are saying and doing, even behind closed doors, in private settings. Campaign operatives going around secretly recording stuff, that’s icky, sure. But is it really so bad that candidates can’t expect to say one thing in public and another thing in private and not get caught?  

The reality is: campaign spying has been going on for a long time. All we really learned this week is that consumer electronics is making that job a lot of easier.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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