The clip was uploaded to YouTube at around 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday. By noon, it had made headlines in a half-dozen major news outlets and drawn a dyspeptic response from a spokeswoman for a front-running presidential campaign. By the end of the afternoon, Democratic operatives had spliced it into a mocking web video. And in the next week or two, it’s entirely possible that this footage will flash across TVs in Des Moines and Dubuque as Republicans trade attack ads in the final days before the Iowa caucuses.
Now here’s the really amazing part: This 65-second snippet was culled from an obscure New England Cable News interview that aired nine years ago, and its glancing trajectory through the politico-media echo chamber was set in motion by a 22-year-old college student who doesn’t own a TV or work for any political outfit. Welcome to the C-SPAN campaign.
Well, the clip of Mitt Romney calling himself a “moderate” with “progressive” views isn’t actually from C-SPAN. Andrew Kaczynski, the young opposition-research hobbyist who dug it up, snipped it from a longer YouTube video and uploaded a concise portion to his own YouTube channel on Tuesday. But it’s not the first time he’s struck gold digging through old political videos. A brutal 2004 clip of the famously flexible Romney explaining why flip-flops were a deal breaker for any presidential candidate — John Kerry in this particular case — made the rounds last week. And Kaczynski found rare footage of Newt Gingrich espousing an individual health-insurance mandate that went viral the week before that. Both hits came from dredging C-SPAN.
The 2008 presidential campaign was sometimes called the YouTube Election because it was the first White House contest held since the creation of the ubiquitous video site. And YouTube helped shape the political identities of 2008′s major players with its viral video hits like the pro-Obama celebrity mash-up Yes We Can. While that dynamic persists — parodies of Rick Perry’s latest TV ad, for instance, currently abound — so far, the 2012 campaign has been dominated by a very different online-video novelty: easily searchable digital archival footage.
Old footage has long been a staple of political attack ads — check out this spot from 1956 or this beauty from 1960 — and opposition researchers are anything but novices at going to the tape. But the breadth of video now available online is something new. In March of last year, C-SPAN put more than 160,000 hours of its archival footage online and meticulously indexed it for search. Its video library is a modern oppo marvel: say you’re looking for an old clip of Transportation Secretary and former Congressman Ray LaHood. (O.K., I have no idea why you would be, but humor me.) C-SPAN’s archive can break down all of his appearances by year, or by what job title he held at the time, or the type of event at which he was speaking, among other categories. It also “tags” other people who’ve appeared with him a la Facebook pics, so you can scrutinize the company he’s kept.
Kaczynski says his process for finding the choicest bits is simply to root around for videos that relate to the topic du jour in presidential politics — health reform, Freddie Mac, whatever — and listen for noteworthy remarks. Not everything clicks right away; he says Tuesday’s clip of Romney sat around on his desktop for a week. But he knew he’d hit the mother lode the first time he happened across the C-SPAN archive: “I just kind of wandered onto the C-SPAN site, and I was like, Oh my God, this is a treasure trove.” As for why Kaczynski does it? “I just want to offer people a perspective on candidates they don’t usually get to see,” he says. “I think it’s cool that I can affect the campaign from my living-room couch.”
And that’s in keeping with C-SPAN’s mission: “to let people see candidates as they are,” according to Robert Browning, the director of the C-SPAN archives, who oversees a small staff and huge rooms of equipment in 10,000-sq.-ft. of research-park real estate near Purdue University. He doesn’t really mind if someone else ends up getting the clicks. (The most watched video in the C-SPAN archive currently has a little more than 700,000 views. The most viewed video on YouTube has nearly 700 million. But that’s what you get when you put a discussion of summer-work visas up against a Justin Bieber music video.) “It’s all kinds of people who are finding the material: sometimes it’s everyday people, sometimes it’s bloggers, sometimes it’s journalists or opposition researchers,” Browning says. “That’s pure democracy in a sense.”
The timing of C-SPAN’s digital expansion was serendipitous. The current crop of Republican presidential candidates, especially Romney and Gingrich, have an especially rich history in front of the cameras. And the fact that all that footage is now at everyone’s fingertips is having a profound effect. “Their whole political history is online,” says Browning. “TV is ephemeral. Today, it’s not that way anymore.”
Romney’s political career in Massachusetts — a 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy and his successful 2002 gubernatorial bid — is the provenance of most of the attacks against him. Although there’s not a whole lot of local footage on C-SPAN, a proliferation of other sources have provided awkward campaign stops, now uncomfortable appeals to the Bay State’s liberal electorate and evidence of policy flip-flops to create an expansive video dossier for his opponents to exploit. Even though Romney faced similarly themed attacks when he ran for President in 2008, there are now more clips to back up such barbs because of the ready availability and searchability of online footage. The Democratic National Committee’s first TV ad of the cycle was chocked full of it.
Gingrich’s tape trail is much longer than Romney’s. As a 20-year veteran of the House and onetime Speaker who’s never minded the sound of his own voice, Gingrich appears in more than 1,000 recorded events in C-SPAN’s archives, which date back to just a few months after he was sworn into office in 1979. “With Newt Gingrich, there’s enough C-SPAN footage you could probably watch it for a year,” says Kaczynski. And there is literally everything you can imagine. Sure, there’s Gingrich powwowing with Hillary Clinton and praising the individual mandate, but there’s also Gingrich looking on as Chris Farley gives a speech to the entire House Republican conference in Newtonian guise. As with Romney, it’s not just entertainment, it’s having a real impact on the election. A recent poll suggested that Gingrich might be beginning to flag in Iowa as a toxic cocktail of ads hits the airwaves. Many of them rely on past statements or archival footage from the online video arsenal. And there will be many more.
Former Swamplander Karen Tumulty used to celebrate particularly rich or telling video discoveries with the heading “Why God Invented C-SPAN.” One could probably now put the entire Republican primary race under the same banner.