Picture this: Newt Gingrich discussing national health care, arguing for wealth redistribution and an individual insurance mandate, all while sitting next to noted conservative stalwart Hillary Rodham Clinton, the whole discussion caught on videotape.
A sneaky, fact-fudging attack ad, unleashed by a rival presidential contender or enemy super PAC?
The footage is real, recorded at a 2005 policy forum. Uploaded to YouTube last November, it caused a campaign stir — in part because it made Mr. Gingrich appear squirrelly, in part because it was one of a series of embarrassing candidate clips to come from an unlikely source.
“I knew he had supported an individual mandate in the past,” said Andrew Kaczynski, who posted the revealing Gingrich clip to his YouTube account. “I’ve put up four or five videos where he talks about that.
“With Mitt Romney, there are multiple videos of him saying the same thing. With Rick Santorum, there are issues with earmarks and other things that Republican voters might find interesting, because it might not fit the traditional party orthodoxy. I love looking back on a candidate’s life, seeing how they turned into the person they are today.”
A 22-year-old student at St. John’s University in New York, Mr. Kaczynski is neither a seasoned journalist nor a professional political opposition researcher. Nevertheless, he has emerged as a flip-flop cop for the digital age, one of the Republican presidential primary campaign’s top chroniclers of candidate hypocrisy — excuse us, how they turned into the people they are today.
• Mr. Romney, a 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, declares that he is not a “partisan Republican” and that his views are “progressive”;
• Ron Paul — circa 1995, sporting jet-black hair and a bright white lab coat — brags about putting out political newsletters, the same newsletters he recently disavowed because they contain controversial statements about race, AIDS and international conspiracy theories;
• Mr. Santorum turns up in a pro wrestling ring to illustrate the importance of bipartisan compromise and touts the fact that he worked with both Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, on legislation, an ad produced by his failed 2006 Senate re-election campaign.
“Candidates really come to us the way their campaigns put them out there, so packaged,” Mr. Kaczynski said. “Something like the Romney campaign is so strict, run so well, that people have a hunger to see how candidates were in the past.
“It’s not just making them look bad. It’s things that might just be cool. I find this fun. Entertaining. I just love to do it.”
A political ‘nerd’
A self-professed Republican who has interned with two GOP congressmen and the Republican National Committee, Mr. Kaczynski describes himself as a “political nerd,” a young man who spends his free time studying, hanging out with his girlfriend and scouring the Internet for political news, information and videos.
Mr. Kaczynski acquired his love of politics from his father, Steve, a lawyer who began volunteering for candidates at age 12 and has an extensive collection of campaign memorabilia in the basement of his Cleveland home.
Mr. Kaczynski recalls the family television always featuring news programming; the first book he remembers reading was a Stephen Ambrose biography of President Eisenhower.
At the time, Mr. Kaczynski was 8 years old.
A resident of New York’s 9th Congressional District, Mr. Kaczynski was following the special election to replace disgraced Democratic representative Anthony Weiner when he stumbled across amusing footage of Democratic candidate David Weprin dancing awkwardly at a Caribbean music festival in Brooklyn.
“It got like 20,000 views in two days,” he said.
Mr. Kaczynski interned with the election’s winner, Republican Bob Turner. He found the job dull. He loved working around politics, but not necessarily within it.
Around the same time, he realized that C-SPAN had online video archives — about 160,000 hours of footage, all of it searchable by candidate, uploaded in 2010.
Mr. Kaczynski launched his YouTube channel in October, posting goofy television advertisements from Rick Perry’s long-ago campaigns for Texas agriculture commissioner — including one featuring the candidate enthusiastically touring a local sausage factory. The video was eventually viewed nearly 50,000 times. A torrent of clips followed. By December, Mr. Kaczynski had picked up 10,000 Twitter followers and was being interviewed by New York Magazine and C-SPAN.
“A lot of people had used my videos but hadn’t really given me credit,” Mr. Kaczynski said. “The magazine story came out the exact same day I posted the Romney ‘I’m a progressive’ video.
“That was kind of a perfect storm. People saw that all of this stuff was coming from the same place. It blew up so fast.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Befitting his cheerful disposition, many of Mr. Kaczynski’s videos are silly: Mr. Perry making actor Chuck Norris an honorary Texas Ranger; Mr. Romney admitting that his favorite book is the pulpy sci-fi Scientologist space opera “Battlefield Earth”; Mr. Cain unspooling an extended political metaphor about the baffling aerodynamics of bumblebees; Mr. Gingrich meeting the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers in full costume.
Other clips, however, have become legitimate campaign fodder, driving the news cycle and forcing Republican candidates to publicly respond.
Mr. Gingrich has been peppered with questions about his previous support for individual health insurance mandates. Mr. Romney has caught flak from both the Democratic National Committee and Mr. Perry for his 2002 boast of being “progressive” and not a “partisan Republican.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow, I can find stuff and that can have an actual impact on the race,’” Mr. Kaczynski said. “With Newt and the mandate, Mother Jones magazine first reported on it. It got a little bit of play. But it really had an impact when people could see it coming straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Digging up contradictory positions and embarrassing material from a candidate’s past traditionally has been the domain of political opposition researchers, experienced professionals hired by campaigns to compile comprehensive dossiers on rival candidates.
In turn, those dossiers provide the raw materials for effective political arguments and attacks — like recent ads released by a pro-Gingrich political action committee assailing Mr. Romney’s record as a venture capitalist, or the controversial 1988 “Willie Horton ad” that linked Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’ oversight of a Massachusetts prison furlough program to the rape and murder of a young woman, painting him as weak on crime.
Once upon a time, before the spread of the Internet, finding useful information tended to be a slow, painstaking process, remembers longtime opposition researcher Brett Di Resta,.
“When I started in 1993, you had to do a lot more on-the-ground research,” said Mr. Di Resta, an opposition researcher with Democracy Partners who also teaches a course on the subject at George Washington University. “Go through newspaper clippings that nice old ladies in libraries were kind enough to gather. Or go to the newspapers themselves and sit in their vaults, staring at microfilm machines.
“The Internet has totally changed the game of how we disseminate research. It used to be we would try to get reporters information behind the scenes, get them to write the stories we wanted them to write. Not anymore. Now, you can create your own website, and you have an army of partisan bloggers who are more than happy to disseminate it.”
Keeping people honest
Despite his skill set, Mr. Kaczynski insists he has no interest in working for a partisan campaign. Besides, he already has a new job.
“Anyone can watch hundreds of hours of videos. He has great news judgment. There aren’t a lot of other people like him out there.”
Mr. Smith already is pushing his new employee to expand beyond videos. Case in point? Mr. Kaczynski recently uncovered a series of archived documents that show Mr. Romney intervening in the Massachusetts housing market during his tenure as state governor — a far cry from his more recent stance that government should stay out of the ongoing housing crisis.
“I also want him to find the opposition research book Hillary [Rodham Clinton] did on Barack Obama,” Mr. Smith said. “Sadly, he hasn’t been able to find that yet. But I’m eager to turn Andrew loose on Obama once the general election starts.”
A history major set to graduate this year, Mr. Kaczynski now takes his courses online. While he works full time at BuzzFeed’s Manhattan office during the day, he still searches for political videos at night, trying to impact the presidential race from his couch.
“When I get home, I get on my computer, see what I missed during the hour I was on the subway,” Mr. Kaczynski said. “It’s incredible how much stuff is out there. Just incredible. There’s so much waiting to be discovered.”