Years from now, Scott Prouty’s name may simply be the answer to a presidential trivia question or the subject of a wait-wait-don’t-tell-me moment for most Americans.
But political operatives and candidates-in-waiting won’t soon forget the name of the man who filmed Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video. Why? Because his decision crystallized a reality of the modern day campaign: The cloak of privacy doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as it once did.
Prouty, a bartender with blue collar roots, secretly filmed Romney’s controversial remarks at a Florida fundraiser last spring. The remarks were leaked to Mother Jones magazine, which published them in the fall. And the rest is history. Until he revealed his identity in an interview with MSNBC broadcast Wednesday night, Prouty was an anonymous figure.
“I’m a regular guy. Middle class, hardworking guy. I’d like to think I have a good moral compass and a core,” he told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz.
By secretly firming Romney in a venue designed to be a private gathering of allies, Prouty showed that even far from the ever-watchful eye of the traditional news media, candidate remarks must never be regarded as completely private.
Now, Prouty’s “47 percent” video was far from the first caught-on-tape gaffe to move far and wide across the Internet and damage a candidate’s standing. In 2006, then-Virginia Sen. George Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment was captured on tape by an opposing campaign volunteer, ushering in an era in which every public word a candidate mutters is subject to intense scrutiny.
After Allen, others were tripped up by the combination of two factors: technology that allows video, audio and photographs to be shared simply and quickly with millions of other people, and a culture that often digests its political news in 30-second clips, tweets, short blog posts, and other brief bits.
Former congressman Anthony Weiner’s downfall was the sharing of lewd photos via the social networking tool Twitter. Former congressman Bob Etheridge learned the hard way about being too rough with with questioners carrying cameras. And President Obama, then a candidate in 2008, was given a rough lesson about the perils of off-the-cuff comments at private fundraisers with his widely covered remarks about small-town voters clinging to “guns or religion.”
But the “47 percent” video wasn’t merely the latest incarnation of an incident that had already happened before. It was something new.
Allen’s comments were made at a campaign rally. Etheridge’s remark was made on a public sidewalk. Weiner voluntarily put his pictures on Twitter. And while the audio of Obama’s controversial 2008 remarks was released, the video wasn’t. For an extremely visual culture, images matter, as The Fix recently argued.
For Romney, it was all really a perfect storm: Video and audio of damaging, private remarks that only fed into the narrative his opponents were trying to drive, namely, that he was out of touch with most Americans.
There is also something ironic about the way the video surfaced. Modern campaigns protect candidates from the press more than ever before. And efforts to bypass the traditional media are often part and parcel of that effort. (Look at the White House’s Flickr feed, blog, or other attempts to engage directly with the public as examples.)
What Prouty showed was that, in one sense, the high wall that campaigns put up can also be bypassed. And that is something campaign strategists must be aware of in the future. How they counterbalance that reality remains to be seen.
What Prouty also showed was that even the best-laid plans for shielding a candidate can fall short. And that’s the lesson for future candidates and their aides. Whatever “careful” or “cautious” meant before, it must mean something new in 2014, 2016, and beyond, because the next Scott Prouty could be impossible to identify in advance.