Bird-dogging is a technique whereby activists get political candidates on the record about their position on an issue or call attention to an issue through questions asked at public campaign events.°
The term comes from the analogy of a bird-dog, which tracks down birds by scent. In the metaphor, candidates for office often want to conceal their positions on controversial issues or keep their language around them vague. Trained activists, or “bird-dogs”, go to events and ask carefully crafted questions on issues they wish to talk about to try to “flush a candidate’s opinions into the open.” They keep asking follow-up questions until they get a clear answer.
Bird-dogs often work in issue advocacy organizations, and are less concerned with who wins an election than with getting their issues addressed as part of the campaign process.
History of term
The use of “bird-dogging” to describe a process of following, surveilling, or repeatedly questioning individuals dates at least back to World War II. It has long been applied to the processes of reporters, salespeople, and talent scouts, who track issues or leads down to a conclusion.
In activist circles, the term was popularized in the mid-2000s by New Hampshire Quaker activist Arnie Alpert who noted that the way people were asking questions at “town halls” with presidential candidates was allowing the candidates too much wiggle room:
“If you simply go in there and say, ‘What do you think about health care? What do you think about Iraq?’ the candidate can pretty much say anything and have it sound like it’s a good answer,” said Arnie Alpert, the program coordinator in New Hampshire for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group.
So in the lead-up to the 2004 primary, he started teaching people how to ask questions. Basically, it takes planning, precision and a little bit of courage. (see New York Times story)
Albert traces the technique back to anti-nuclear proliferation campaigns organized by Quaker activist group AFSC in the 1980s. But the movement and technique gained national attention when members of the ASFC used the technique to get Howard Dean talking about trade policies in 2004. (Source)
Albert’s techniques were later adopted by Priorities NH, a Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s) group trying to get military spending issues addressed, as well as other groups in the 2008 primary. The rise of citizen video made such techniques an important tool of activism.
Rhetoric around a 2016 controversy created by James O’Keefe wrongly portrayed bird-dogging as a Clinton campaign term dealing with the instigation of violence at Trump rallies. The term pre-dates the Clinton campaign and has never been used in this way.
New York Times Article from March 2007: “Bird-Dogging in N.H. and Iowa” (Source)
From the 2016 book Service Sociology and Academic Engagement in Social Problems: “Bird-dogging means attending a political candidates public appearances with the specific aim of challenging or seeking clarification of a particular issue.” (Source)
From 2011 book The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World: “Bird-dogging refers to attending public events where a candidate for public office or an elected representative will appear and calling on him or her to publicly address an issue, support your cause, or reconsider a stance already taken.” (Source)
From March 2010: “Iowans Can Learn From New Hampshire” by Arnie Alpert: “But Erin was not going to miss her chance. Already an experienced ‘bird-dog,’ the 24-year-old activist stuck out her hand and, without missing a beat, asked Obama if he supported the abolition of nuclear weapons.” (Source)
A February 2016 article: “These Quakers Are Asking Tougher Questions Than Many in the Press”, The Intercept. (Source)