At a private $50,000-per-plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., last May, Mitt Romney referred to roughly half of Americans as freeloaders who were "dependent on government." Little did the GOP presidential candidate know, however, that someone was covertly filming the exclusive event. The video was later uploaded to YouTube. James Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, uncovered the video clip in August and sent a tip to David Corn, the Washington Bureau Chief of the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine. The "47 percent" footage went viral in mid-September and helped Democrats paint the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch elitist, which ultimately helped sink his presidential hopes.
Carter, who lives in Dunwoody, vividly recalls the day that the video went viral. It was Sept. 18, and he spent the entire day talking to legions of reporters. His wife even took calls on his behalf. Other journalists dialed the personal and work lines of his cousin, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, in hopes of talking to him. Some even contacted the Carter Center in Poncey-Highland.
"It was a blur," the Dunwoody resident recalls. "I always considered myself good at finding stuff on the Internet, but I didn't know that there wasn't a ton of others doing the exact same thing."
The "47 percent" video didn't just help define the 2012 presidential campaign's narrative; it changed Carter's professional life. His unlikely discovery catapulted him from an underemployed political junkie with a knack for Web browsing — at the time his Twitter bio said he was "looking for work" — into a sought-after job candidate.
Several media outlets, including the Huffington Post and ThinkProgress, offered Carter jobs. But he declined the opportunities to follow his passion for research and start his own firm. The fact that he's a staunch Democrat also played a role in not joining the journalism world: "I didn't want to feel conflicted about presenting the other side of the story," he says.
Carter's work has also had an impact on Georgia politics. Over the past two years, his research helped his cousin convince rural Georgia Republicans that Gov. Nathan Deal's proposal to overhaul the HOPE scholarship would negatively impact their constituents.
In October, he helped expose a 52-minute clip of a closed-door, Gold Dome meeting about Agenda 21, a United Nations program that conspiracy theorists call a plot to erode liberties. Carter used his national media contacts, including those at MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," to help spread the story. Chip Rogers, the powerful former Republican state senator who hosted the meeting, resigned in December, with some speculating that he was forced out of office after embarrassing the Georgia GOP.
Now that Carter has the attention of both local and national Democrats as well as the media, he hopes he can sustain his political and legal research firm, Carter Research, for the foreseeable future. He's even set his sights on excavating information in high-profile federal races. But he'll never forget his big break.
"[Research now] is pretty much a full-time job," Carter says. "I was doing this kind of thing; I just hadn't turned it into something that paid me yet. The "47 percent" video allowed me to do this, and I'll forever be grateful for that."