From viral-video attack ads to online campaign announcements and massive Internet fundraising efforts, the 2008 presidential campaign really is shaping up to be the first Web 2.0 election. And behind much of those online efforts is a legion of young bloggers and online strategists who are helping pre-Net candidates keep their online message tight and focused while warding off viral attacks and, hopefully, drafting some new voters along the way.
MTV News spoke to a pair of young campaign staffers using their blogging experience to help former Massachusetts governor Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic Senator Barack Obama as they try to surf their way to the White House.
Who: Stephen Smith, 25
Job title: Director of online communications for the Romney campaign
Job description: Interacting with other conservative bloggers and new-media sources and getting Romney’s message out to the blogosphere, setting up interviews and coordinating “rapid response” to online attacks.
Background: Smith, who hails from Brentwood, Tennessee, had never blogged before joining Romney’s campaign in January, but had been an avowed “political junkie” for most of his life. He studied political science at Princeton before going to work on the re-election team for former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist in 2003, which is when he caught the campaign bug. “I’m a voracious news consumer and I found that I was getting more information from online sources, and so when I graduated in 2005, I was looking for a way to put my passion for new media and politics into play,” said Smith, who was reading more than 30 blogs a day at that point. His first gig was helping onetime presidential hopeful Frist construct an online presence, record podcasts and blog, which led to an opportunity to help do the same for the Romney campaign. (You can check out Smith’s work here.)
Trial by fire: Smith had barely gotten his bags unpacked on New Year’s Day when he was faced with his first viral crisis. While monitoring the more than 100 mostly conservative blogs he checks out daily to alert the campaign to what the grassroots webheads are saying about the candidate, Smith had to jump into action when a “selectively recut” YouTube video of Romney began circulating. It showed the candidate espousing some liberal views on abortion and gay rights in 1994 that don’t mesh with his current campaign message. “My job is to read all these blogs and report on them, and if there’s an opportunity to get our message out there, get it out, and if there are attacks out there, I try to facilitate a response,” Smith said.
“We saw that the  video was spreading at a great rate, and we thought that it deserved a rapid response in the same medium from which it was launched. We were lucky enough to have the governor [available] that day, so I scheduled an interview with the governor and [influential political blog] InstaPundit.com for its podcast show. We had video cameras taping the governor’s response to questions about the [viral] video, and we quickly put it up on YouTube and got it out to the same bloggers who were discussing it. If they were talking about it at noon, by 6 or 7 that night, they were discussing our response. This was one of the first cases where a candidate was able to turn it around and effectively respond to a video that could have been damaging not in weeks or days, but hours.”
Other duties: Smith also works on Romney’s MySpace and Facebook pages, and during a typical 12- to 14-hour day, he might do everything from e-mail marketing to working on improving the candidate’s Web site.
After the campaign: “I hope to serve President Romney in January 2009 in any way he sees fit,” Smith said. “I’m a true believer.”
Who: Sam Graham-Felsen, 25
Job title: Blogger for Obama campaign
Job description: Report news on campaign, post Obama press releases on “The Obama HQ” blog site and interview supporters across the country and tell their stories.
Background: After graduating from Harvard in 2004, Graham-Felsen did some freelance writing for The Nation magazine while living in New York’s East Village and looking for a way to apply his degree in social studies, which combines political science, economy, history and philosophy. “Coming from a journalistic background, I wanted to tell stories — real-people stories,” said Graham-Felsen, who moved to Chicago in March to begin work on his first political campaign. (Check out some of his work here.)
Working the phones: “Basically I call up supporters around the country and I write in-depth profiles of them and have them talking about their lives and the issues they face in their communities and how they formed their political identities,” Graham-Felsen said. So far, he’s done dozens of the mini-profiles, talking to Obama supporters in all 50 states. And, like an already seasoned pol who always has a “real person” story to trot out during a stump speech, Graham-Felsen gave examples like the anti-war mother from Oregon, Terry B., who had just found out that her daughter was being shipped off to Iraq. “It was a pretty intense conversation. She was pretty upset, and it was very personal for her,” he said. While talking to Terry, Graham-Felsen found out that the woman had been encouraging other Obama supporters to read the candidate’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” when a friend told Terry there was a 103-person waiting list at her local library. So Terry bought 10 copies of the book and donated them to her local library and started her own chat group on the Obama site encouraging others to do the same. “What’s amazing,” Graham-Felsen said, “is that almost every story I hear is like that, and it’s pretty remarkable.”
Making a difference: Graham-Felsen said the numerous daily interviews he does with supporters are his way of having an effect on the presidential campaign by allowing average Americans to tell personal stories about their struggles. “We always say this campaign is about you, and we really mean it,” Graham-Felsen said. And while, like Smith, Graham-Felsen tries to keep an eye on what the blogosphere is saying, he’s not as focused on putting out fires. “What we’re trying to do is much bigger than politics as usual,” he said enthusiastically. “This is about ordinary people across the country who are being incredibly inspired for the first time in decades — or [in] their lives.”
The future: Hoping he plays a bit of a part in helping to bring reality to the empowerment message of the Web 2.0 revolution, Graham-Felsen said he picked the Obama campaign because he considers himself one of the “real people” he writes about. Plus, how cool would it be to be one of the official First Bloggers if Obama wins the presidency?