NEW YORK — After this, politicians everywhere should surely get the message. Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded remarks at a Florida fundraiser — and the uproar that has followed — reinforce a key reality of the digital media era: the power of viral video and the unauthorized audio to disrupt and potentially alter a high-stakes political contest.
The amateur video of Mr. Romney casting 47 percent of Americans as believing they are “victims” who feel entitled to government assistance has burned up the Internet and aired continually on cable television since its release Monday by Mother Jones magazine. It has thrown the Republican nominee’s campaign off track in a tight race with President Obama with less than seven weeks until Election Day.
A spokeswoman for Mother Jones said that by Wednesday afternoon, the full video and a series of clips had received 5 million page views on the magazine’s website and 3 million more views on YouTube. The impact of the leaked video has been particularly stark.
While both sides have aired scores of highly produced ads aimed at swaying a small group of undecided voters in a handful of battleground states, the decidedly low-tech Romney video has done far more than any one commercial to sway the national political conversation.
There’s no doubt campaigns will continue to rely on TV ads as an important component of their communications strategy. But they also can’t ignore the proliferation of camera-equipped smartphones and amateur videographers eager to capture candidates in unvarnished and potentially revealing situations.
“It’s the democratization of information. One video can offset millions of dollars in campaign ads,” said Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Amateur videos have played a significant role in international incidents.
In Iran, bystanders captured the fatal shooting of a woman named Neda Agha Soltan during protests against that country’s disputed presidential election in 2009. The video circulated widely online and in social media, becoming one of the enduring symbols of the clash between government forces and pro-democracy activists.
President Obama, too, has been scorched by amateur recordings. In 2008, at a San Francisco fundraiser, Mr. Obama was caught on tape suggesting “bitter” small-town voters “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who are not like them” when the economy sours. The episode helped reinforce skepticism about Mr. Obama among many white working-class voters that polls show persists to this day.
Republicans have tried to turn the tables on Mr. Obama since the Romney fundraising video surfaced, pointing to an audio recording from 1998 in which the Democrat, then an Illinois state senator, seems to endorse income redistribution “at least to a certain level to make sure everybody’s got a shot.”
Rodell Mollineau, president of the pro-Obama group American Bridge, said candidates who did not try to say different things to different audiences had nothing to fear from secret taping. American Bridge assigns video “trackers” to Republican candidates, hoping to catch them in a potentially damaging unscripted moment.
“You can get a gotcha moment. Those happen. But more than anything you find inconsistencies in people’s rhetoric,” Mr. Mollineau said. “Politicians will still try to say one thing to one group of people and one thing to another group of people. It won’t work anymore.”