Politicians Go Viral: Clinton, Obama Usher In Age Of YouTube Campaigns

Experts predict Web could engage young voters like never before.

In the increasingly crowded 2008 presidential campaign, video blogs and MySpace profiles are fast eclipsing kissing babies and shaking hands at VFW halls as the preferred methods of reaching out to voters.

Judging from the trio of Democratic candidates who recently used their Web sites to post video messages announcing their presidential exploratory committees — New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Chicago Senator Barack Obama and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson — the run for 2008 is shaping up to be the first viral presidential election in the nation's history.

And given the upsides (easy distribution of messages and appeal to younger voters) and the potentially disastrous downsides (the lightning-speed spread of misstatements and embarrassing outtakes), the new medium could prove to be a boon and a bust to the men and the woman aspiring to the nation's highest office. It could also give the average citizen a chance to participate in the election and affect change in an unprecedented fashion.

"I think this is definitely going to be a YouTube, MySpace, Internet-based election," predicted Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. "The money's going to come from the Internet — you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars — and the big campaign moments will probably happen on the Internet. That's a very exciting thing because for a long time these campaigns have been run through meet and greets with major donors and [candidates] never meeting real people.

"There hasn't always been a reason for politicians to take real people seriously," Pariser continued. "They've been able to get away with just big checks and consultants and pundits talking them up, but when you take people seriously, they will respond."

But Pariser warned that contrary to what philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is not the message, and it's not enough for candidates to appeal to voters on their own terms in YouTube videos. They also will have to connect with the issues people care about and then get them excited about those topics by using the new medium, which Pariser thinks will lead to an "avalanche" of support, energy and money.

The "macaca" incident that took down Virginia's George Allen — in which the former Republican Senator was caught on video uttering a derogatory term aimed at one of his opponent's staffers during Allen's reelection campaign — is one cautionary tale. But anyone wanting to get a taste of the ruinous possibilities created by the collision of the Web and politics should also check out the dozens of remixes that dogged 2004 hopeful Howard Dean after his infamous scream heard 'round the world (see "Remixers Make Howard Dean's Scream Funky And Danceable"). The same exposure that helped him jump to the lead in fundraising and popularity also helped speed his undoing.

Several campaigns have already reportedly geared up to dog their rivals with Allen-like video blogger tag-alongs. But Pariser said the groundbreaking potential of the Internet is less about those "gotcha" moments than about pulling candidates toward the people they should already be paying attention to: their constituents, and not pollsters and Washington insiders. "Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could laboriously raise $40 to $50 million in big checks at rubber-chicken dinners, or they could appeal to real people and raise $100 million in small contributions," he said.

With a simple declaration of "I'm in," Clinton joined the fray over the weekend, courtesy of a conversational video posted on her Web site. In the clip, the former first lady said, "Let's talk. Let's chat. Let's start a dialogue about your ideas and mine." Perhaps in an attempt to turn around what many perceive to be a hard-edge image, Clinton was filmed on what looked like a meticulously arranged living-room set with family pictures in the background. She announced her intention to use "a little help from modern technology" to engage potential voters with a series of live online video chats. The first one was slated to take place Monday night (January 22).

Clinton's announcement came one week after first-term Senator Obama launched his bid via a video message on his Web site, and several after former Senator John Edwards — the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2004 — launched his own video-enhanced site, which features "candid" footage of him complaining about the advice of his political consultants. Edwards leaked a two-and-a-half-minute video outlining the themes of his campaign to sites like YouTube and RocketBoom the night before his announcement; within 48 hours, more than 50,000 people had watched it.

Like Pariser, Hans Riemer, political director of youth-voting organization Rock the Vote, said he thinks the increased reach of the Internet in the election could help boost turnout, especially among young voters. "I think it's huge," he said. "The reason young people don't vote is often that they say they don't understand the issues or don't know what the candidates stand for. The Internet is changing that. These Web sites are getting information on the issues and candidates, and it makes [young people] feel more confident that they have an educated vote and makes them more likely to vote."

In addition, Riemer said sites like YouTube are giving the average citizen more interaction with candidates, allowing them to get to know the candidates with a level of detail that's never been available before. "You don't have to be a 20-year veteran to run for president anymore," he said. "You can come out of nowhere like Dean in 2004. Or Obama now. He's been in the Senate for two years and is one of the leading candidates for the Democratic Party. That's inconceivable without him being able to reach down to supporters by using the Internet."

And thanks to Dean and Allen, campaigns are also getting much savvier about how to use the Web this time around. The Washington Post published a story about how the team behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's bid for the Republican presidential nomination found out about a video that was making the rounds on the 'Net. The video spliced clips from Romney's 1994 debate with Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy — in the debate, Romney voiced support for abortion rights and gay rights, positions he has since renounced. Less than eight hours later, a video of Romney rebutting the claims made in the attack ad was being e-mailed to his supporters and to Republican blogs.

The Post noted that the Web also allows campaigns to avoid going straight to costly network television ads to rebut attack ads, instead sending out their counter-messages via inexpensive videos posted on YouTube or attached to e-mail blasts to their list of supporters.