Political hopefuls exploit gaffes online
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- There's California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on a summer evening newscast, boasting about the state budget he had just signed. And look, there he is again, minutes later, featured on a video clip of the broadcast posted online by his political opponents. It highlights the 11 words Schwarzenegger regretted declaring that day: "Uh, no there really is no plan to end the deficit."
Check out the 22-second video Schwarzenegger's people posted of the governor's rival, Phil Angelides. In it, Angelides tells a friendly audience that if he were governor, the state would provide everyone with health insurance. The next sound bite captures Angelides telling a news interviewer he "hasn't taken an official position" on universal health-care legislation.
Election campaigns are no longer relying on TV news to spread their candidate's flashy video images or capture their opponent's missteps. Today, campaigns are heavily turning to the hugely popular post-it-yourself Web sites -- YouTube, MySpace Video and Google Videos -- especially to upload damaging clips of political gaffes.
"Anybody with a cell phone can upload a homemade political commercial," said Carol Darr, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet, "stuff that five years ago took $10,000 and 10 years ago took $100,000."
The staffers who handle communications and opposition research for Schwarzenegger, the Republican incumbent, and Angelides, the Democratic challenger, are using technology that wasn't around in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election.
Both camps subscribe to a video service that sends an immediate e-mail when any televised newscast in California mentions a keyword chosen by the campaign, say "Angelides" or "Schwarzenegger." Within seconds, the campaign office can tune into that newscast online, and download the entire segment.
When they capture gaffes or contradictions, the campaigns quickly post the clip online and e-mail the link to reporters.
As a result, Schwarzenegger and Angelides are acting as if they're on a 24-7 reality show -- always scripted and often on the lookout for spies, known as trackers. The trackers show up at opponents' campaign rallies aiming camcorders and video cell phones at the podium, or at spontaneous question-and-answer sessions, waiting to ambush the candidate. The statements they record can be cleverly edited to sound like something else.
"I can see where it would be frustrating because sometimes people say things that do need to be put into perspective," said Republican strategist Karen Hanretty. "Everybody says things in everyday life that, taken out of context, could be deemed offensive or inappropriate."
Consider what happened to Virginia Sen. George Allen this summer. At a campaign stop where he spotted a tracker in the audience, Allen, who is white, blurted out what some would consider insensitive racial remarks about the man, who is of Indian heritage. After landing on YouTube, the senator's comments became a national story.
In Florida, a white congressional candidate recently apologized after appearing in a clip posted on Google Video saying, "blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim." The candidate, Tramm Hudson, lost the race.
Schwarzenegger's campaign also seemed headed in an embarrassing direction in early September.
That's when tech-savvy Angelides campaign aides tweaked around with the URL on the governor's public Web site and discovered an audio file in which Schwarzenegger is heard calling Republican Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia "very hot" because she's a mix of "black blood" and "Latino blood." The recording was leaked to the Los Angeles Times, which posted it online, but Schwarzenegger's campaign diffused the problem from becoming bigger, through a series of apologies and news conferences.
But the story didn't end there. Producers at Comedy Central created the last laugh when they aired embarrassing footage of statements Schwarzenegger made during his bodybuilding career, which host Jon Stewart told viewers took only a couple of hours to find on the Internet.
Candidates and their surrogates, who are trained to use careful discretion when dealing with reporters, now have to be more cautious than ever about speaking to, well, anyone.
"I now know that I cannot stop and talk to two young people in the hallway without the potential of my words being on MySpace or some blog, or YouTube by the end of the day," said Bob Mulholland, a consultant within the California Democratic Party. "It's a whole new world," he added. "There are no longer private conversations."
Although campaigns have dedicated staffers to monitor newspapers, radio broadcasts and television newscasts, it's the often elusive trackers who can potentially provide the most damaging material.
Brian Leubitz, a 28-year-old attorney, liberal blogger and graduate student, follows Schwarzenegger with his $550 camcorder.
Aligned with the political action committee PowerPac, Leubitz gets into events as a member of the press. "I'm honest with who I am," Leubitz said. "I say I'm a progressive blogger."
But he hasn't shot the video he so badly wants: An image of the moderate Schwarzenegger with Republican senator Tom McClintock, whose political ideology may be too conservative for the independent voters Schwarzenegger needs to attract.
"We'd like to see him on a stage with McClintock," Leubitz said, "but you don't see them together anymore."
Efforts to reach Republican trackers, who have attended several Angelides events, judging by clips posted online, were unsuccessful. Angelides campaign aides say several would-be trackers were questioned upon arriving at campaign stops this summer, then disappeared before the events began.
While the campaigns prefer not to acknowledge they use trackers, whether they be on staff, as volunteers or loaned from groups aligned with the candidate, they happily discuss the video and audio files that get posted -- uploaded by the spies or by staffers monitoring newscasts.
"It's allowed our campaign to point out inconsistent statements by Phil Angelides in his own words," said Matt David, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger's re-election team. "You can put it on a press release, but to watch it visually, to watch him say, `it is my commitment to you,' then to say, `I have no position on the bill' is more powerful than putting it on a piece of paper."
Nick Papas, a spokesman for Angelides, said, "We pay incredibly close attention to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Republican allies; you never know when the governor will be changing his decision on an important public policy matter." He added: "The new technology has helped ensure leaders are accountable for their remarks on the campaign trail."
Analysts agree that for all its pluses and minuses, the ability to quickly post clips for free on sites accessed by millions of voters and non-voters alike is good for democracy -- as uncomfortable as that may be for the candidates.
"Political campaigns are traditionally command and control operations: The tighter the organization and message, the better the campaign," said Jude Barry, the political consultant who managed Steve Westy's campaign against Angelides in the Democratic primary.
"But the Internet and YouTube are reshaping American politics," Barry adds, "because they reveal rather than conceal things about candidates and campaigns."
© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.