Rise of the YouTube ambush in Election 2010: a case study

Election 2010 campaigns seed town-hall meetings with tough questioners and cameras, in the hope of tarring a rival via a 'YouTube moment.' Here's a look at one recent episode in an Ohio House race.

Photos by AP/File
Democratic Ohio Rep. John Boccieri (l.) showed up at a town-hall meeting in North Canton, Ohio, Sept. 7 to confront Republican challenger Jim Renacci (r.). A video of their exchange, and of pointed questions by others in the room, was embedded in a widely seen blog post the next day.

The event the day after Labor Day was billed as a town-hall meeting, the third in recent weeks for Republican Jim Renacci as part of his campaign to unseat Rep. John Boccieri, the freshman Democrat from Ohio’s 16th Congressional District.

It also turned out to be a case study for a widely used brand of political high jinks that has a whiff of dirty tricks and a dollop of unregulated citizen journalism heated by the blogosphere and brought to a boil by the searing partisanship of a high-stakes campaign season. It is a phenomenon that has candidates in both parties watching their every step amid signs that voters’ unscripted access to those who would represent them could be waning.

Mr. Renacci, facing an audience of about 100 at the North Canton Civic Center, opened by noting the presence of an Ohio Democratic Party activist with a video camera. He then launched into his stump speech.

But after fielding just one question, the surprises began for Renacci, a businessman and former mayor. Unexpectedly, Representative Boccieri showed up for what suddenly became the first face-to-face debate of the campaign. He told the audience his schedule had freed up early that night and he had decided to accept the longstanding invitation to participate. What he did not say was that his staff had also held a meeting that evening at their own headquarters to prepare 30 recruits to ask tough questions from the audience. The topics ranged from taxes and free trade to abortion rights.

Then came the evening’s seminal moment, as videotaped by a blogger and posted on YouTube en route to the national media and a shot at tipping a too-close-to-call race.

The audience fell silent as Robert Thompson, one of only two African-Americans in the room, rose to ask Renacci a question. Mr. Thompson, who did not introduce himself, is the political director of an Ohio branch of a national public employees union and was a delegate for Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He had also been in attendance earlier that evening at the meeting at Boccieri headquarters, though he later maintained in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor that his question was his own and not planted.

“We’re suffering out here,” Thompson said at the meeting. “People flighted the neighborhood and left it to drugs…. I wanted to show the children growing up that you don’t have to sell drugs … but the rules and regulations that are established in the inner city don’t affect the ones that are in the suburbs,” he said. “What is your position in addressing these concerns? Again, I’m concerned about the civil rights and the diversity of your campaign.”

The Republican Renacci took a piece of the question: “A lot of the problems you’re talking about are local issues,” he replied. “We need to get our federal government out of the way and we need to allow our local governments to become more involved in many of the issues you’re talking about.… Those are important ways of looking at all that. It’s not the federal government’s job,” he said.

Video clip takes flight

The next morning, a video clip of the encounter was embedded in a blog post by Scott Keyes on the ThinkProgress.org site in which he accused Renacci of opposing a federal role in enforcing civil rights and “dangerous ignorance of both past and present civil rights issues.”

Then MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” picked up the video clip that night. By Thursday morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm of the House Democratic Party, issued a statement on the case.

“If NRCC [National Republican Con­gres­sional Committee] Young Gun Jim Ren­acci’s backwards views prevailed we wouldn’t be marking this year as the 45th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act,” said DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer. “We would go back to the days of separate lunch counters and discrimination and racism in employment and housing.”

Later that day, House majority whip James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, here in Canton for a community rally celebrating the Voting Rights Act, told the Huffington Post that such views made one “unfit to hold federal office.”

The Renacci campaign was stunned to see how his views were represented on the blog. An audio recording of the evening made by a Christian Science Monitor reporter shows that his response to the question – “So you say you want to go back to that system of local government controlling?” – indicated he did support federal enforcement of civil rights over the opposition of local government: “No! No! No! What you‘re doing is you‘re talking about the past, and I agree with you. I‘m talking about today.” But the blog text omitted that response.

The fast-escalating firestorm nevertheless needed to be addressed. Renacci issued a statement affirming his commitment to civil rights law and “the role that the federal government has played and must continue to play in addressing civil rights issues in America.”

Renacci is hardly the first politician blindsided by a YouTube moment. In August 2006 in Virginia, Republican Sen. George Allen’s reelection bid was derailed when he used a term – “macaca,” considered a racial slur – to refer to a volunteer sent by his rival, Democrat Jim Webb, to film his events. It was caught on video.

How it’s done

The tactics of the new high jinks are relatively simple. Seed the audience with questioners and make sure the ensuing exchanges are caught on video by a “tracker” who can get it into the blogosphere.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of ads where really poor- quality video gets cut into an ad,” says Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, which screens ads for accuracy. “There is some evidence that campaign organizations are stalking their opponents looking for a macaca moment.” Boccieri’s campaign acknowledges it invited people to its headquarters, but the recruits “asked questions they wanted answers to,” says Jessica Kershaw, campaign spokeswoman.

She says Republicans do even more of it. “The Republican Party is 100 percent tracking John Boccieri’s campaign. They send staffers to nearly all John Boccieri’s events.… They’re asked to take videos of everything. They are waiting for what everyone knows as a YouTube moment and, unfortunately, Mr. Renacci got his own moment in the spotlight with his answer to Mr. Thompson’s question.”

Campaign officials on both sides of the aisle complain about the practice, which is driving many candidates to seek more controlled venues to engage the public.

House Democrats say their members held 200 town meetings in August, but will not release details. Republicans release photographs of their town-hall meetings, as proof they occurred, but will not release a full account of the events.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R) of Texas says he held 24 town meetings in August alone. “But I’m in a rock-solid Republican district,” he says. “We didn’t have any YouTube moments.”

Boccieri, who has yet to have his own public town-hall meeting, says he likes Tele-Town Hall meetings, where he can contact large numbers of people without requiring attendance at a public hall.

In fact, Tele-Town Halls are a booming business for members of Congress. “We’ve seen this take off exponentially,” says Shaun Thompson of Tele-Town Hall, LLC in Arlington, Va., which launched the Tele-Town Hall platform in 2004 and now claims “hundreds of members of Congress” as users. “People can call hundreds and thousands, even millions of households in a single teleconference event,” he says.

Tele-Town Hall also protects candidates from video cameras – and the “gotcha” ads they help produce.

“There have always been plants,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Any public forum in which candidates expose themselves, you can bet serious money that the other side has plants.” What’s striking about YouTube is its immediacy, he adds. “Instead of just a report in print, you now have imagery. If that fellow hadn’t been videotaping George Allen – if it had just been an audio track – George Allen would probably still be in the US Senate. The image is much more powerful. People remember what they see.”

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey, sees a detrimental impact on the relationship between legislators and their constituents.

“Legislators are very fearful now of any kind of genuine interaction because they assume it will come back and bite them,” he says. “If you’re on a television camera or teleconference, it’s not the same thing. It’s easier to duck a question and harder for a constituent to ask questions. It’s one more step where the incentive in politics is to close up.… You have less genuine interaction between members and their constituents and the encounters they have are colder, without feeling, and without actual debate.”

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