Campaign 08: Internet video is at the center

The YouTube effect: In aftermath of Macaca, campaigns are attacking, defending, promoting and spinning like crazy online.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

You will hear a thousand times over the next two years that in 2008 the role of Internet video will be unprecedented. Not just because campaigns are posting videos of the candidates speaking their carefully written announcements into a camera. But because some campaign managers really get the power and danger of the viral spread of little commercials that individuals, nonprofits and campaigns can create and distribute in a matter of hours.

The Washington Post's coverage of this topic starts not with Hilary or Obama's online announcements but with a story of how Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign reacted to a video making the YouTube rounds.

By noon on Jan. 10, Matt Rhoades and Kevin Madden knew they had a problem.

The two men handle communications for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential exploratory committee and had been told about a video flying around the Internet that spliced clips from Romney's 1994 debate with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). In it, Romney (R), then running for the Senate in a losing campaign against Kennedy, voiced support for abortion rights and gay rights -- positions he has since renounced.

Romney's political inner circle, alerted to the threat, decided to strike back quickly. Less than eight hours after the attack appeared, a video of Romney rebutting the charges was being sent to his supporters and to Republican blogs.

While Romney's rebuttal video is hardly a case study in exciting videography - it's little more than a single camera angle of him speaking on the phone about how he's changed his positions - the fast response shows that in light of George Allen's disastarous Macaca video, campaigns take YouTube attacks seriously and are using the new media - not the old to fight back.

The centrality of video can be seen in Hilary Clinton's use of an interactive webcast over the next three nights to converse with voters. Clinton's Internet strategist is Peter Dao, who worked on John Kerry's 2004 campaign.

"I remember in 2003 and 2004 when you said 'blog,' most people didn't know what you meant or the significance of it," Dao said, adding that with the growth of blogs and social networking sites, "the ubiquity of it is so amazing . . . the sky's the limit."

John Edwards started the video campaign before Obama or Clinton by posting a 2-1/2 minute video to YouTube before speaking to TV cameras. And a townhall meeting with 1,000 attendees was webcast to an audience of 40,000 - and the campaign also edited the footage for YouTube videos as well. What - in the absence of TV coverage - would have had a very local effect is now being sent around the world and repackaged in lots of different ways. That's an effect that campaigns are definitely taking notice of.

"Our goal was to have people go and watch that video so they could hear directly from John what this campaign was about," said Mathew Gross, chief Internet strategist for the Edwards campaign. "Within the first 48 hours or so, 50,000 people had watched that video. Now it is over 100,000 people who have seen it."

Another impact of YouTube is that it lets voters around the country see what's going on in the increasingly small number of markets where campaigns focus TV advertising in the final weeks of the campaign. Political junkies who want to know what's being spun in Iowa or New Hampshire can find it all online.

A television commercial paid for by MoveOn.org, a leading progressive advocacy group, attacking McCain for his support for sending more troops to Iraq began running last week in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as on some national cable stations. It was also posted on YouTube and by Friday was one of the most popular videos on the site -- greatly expanding its universe of viewers and its influence on the national conversation.

For now, the race is on to exploit today's technology and compete for attention not just against other campaigns but also against other Web sites. "You'll see a technology Internet primary with people trying to do interesting things and move the ball forward," Gross said. "There is so much creativity on the Internet, as a campaign, how do you reach that level of creativity and interest?"

Editorial standards