In the YouTube election, getting potential voters to watch a candidate’s Web video may be as important as any straw poll in Iowa.
All of the 2008 presidential contenders are trying to seed the Web with clips they hope will catch fire with the MySpace generation, as well as spotlight any gaffes that could damage or sink an opponent.
“If you don’t have your guys with digicams roving around out there, you’re crazy,” says Joe Trippi, the architect of Howard Dean’s 2004 Internet-focused campaign who now works for Sen. John Edwards.
Campaigns are traditionally top-down affairs; the candidates and their consultants know they’ll take hits from the opposition, but they’re accustomed to carefully shaping the candidate’s image in the traditional media.
hat model is dangerously outdated in 2008, but giving up control and adapting to the informality of new media is a difficult leap for candidates accustomed to performing for TV.
Nevertheless, the 2008 presidential campaigns have bulked-up their staffs with operatives monitoring the candidate’s online image, and they’re working to drive traffic to official campaign clips on the Web.
“If you walk through any campaign now, they literally have a war room; Hillary’s camp has as many people monitoring the blogs and online as they do the traditional press,” says Craig Minassian, TV producer and Democratic operative.
Sen. Clinton’s Web audience exploded in May after the campaign posted a clip to YouTube that shows the senator singing the national anthem — badly — and asking viewers to help her pick a new theme song for the campaign.
Her digital media director, Peter Daou, says it’s a sign the senator is embracing the medium, including the self-referential element. “The whole point is it’s bottom-up and democratic,” he says. “It’s not about control. It’s a way for media to move around.”
Last week, Clinton passed Obama for the first time in online viewership since the beginning of April, according to data from Tube Mogul, which tracks the candidates’ online efforts in partnership with Techpresident.com. Obama had held a commanding lead in just about every available Internet metric — from number of MySpace friends to page views to video streams — but because it’s the first election cycle in which digital media is playing a significant role, the value of such numbers is unclear.
In France, socialist candidate Segolene Royal ran the portrait of a Web 2.0 campaign and dominated such Internet stats, but the hits failed to deliver the election to her.
“This is a new kind of political data whose import isn’t fully understood,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.
At the same time, the candidates know that the penalty of not at least appearing tech-savvy means alienating the YouTube generation.
“We’re really working the bloggers, YouTube and the Internet. I meet bloggers in every city and give them the same time that I would give broadcast or print,” says Gov. Bill Richardson, who claims a staff of four new-media gurus.
The need to reach Web viewers is forcing the candidates to increasingly rely on a new generation of media strategists, many of whom wield an outsized influence.
“The funny thing is there are really only a handful of people who have proven expertise because there’s really only been one cycle,” says Clay Johnson, a former Dean campaign staffer who now works for Democratic consulting firm Blue State Digital, which handles the digital strategy for Obama and Richardson. “My theory is, in a few years there will be no difference between ‘Internet consultant’ and ‘media consultant.’ ”
Members of the Dean diaspora running digital campaigns in the current race include the godfather of the group, Trippi, and former Dean webmaster Mathew Gross, both running Web strategy for Edwards. Another former Deaniac, Joe Rospars, 26, heads new media for Obama.
On the GOP side, vets of Bush-Cheney 2004 loom large. Former Bush-Cheney Web master Patrick Ruffini now directs online strategy for Rudy Giuliani. His former deputy, Mandy Finn, is now Gov. Mitt Romney’s director of “eStrategy.”
The dean of Republican Internet strategists is Becky Donatelli, who oversaw Bush-Cheney’s digital strategy in 2004 and is now consulting for Sen. John McCain.
No campaign would consider going without a digital media strategist at this point, but it’s easy to forget how quickly their expertise moved from novelty to necessity.
Distribution of newsworthy videoclips is near instantaneous and, as former Sen. George “macaca” Allen found out, potentially deadly.
Consultants say even fund-raising house parties closed to the media are potential minefields; camera phones and tiny digicams can capture any ill-considered quip, and the video can be posted to the Web within minutes. Similarly, the next devastating campaign attack ad seems just as likely to come from a motivated amateur as any K Street consultant.
The mock “1984” hit on Clinton, which inserted the senator’s face into a classic Apple Computer ad warning of the perils of Big Brother, was created by a Blue State employee on personal time; it was arguably the most compelling ad of the campaign.
But as much attention as it got, it didn’t change the race’s dynamics. Jeff Jarvis, founder of PrezVid.com, notes that it “did not torpedo (Clinton’s) campaign, nor did it inspire a rash of voter-made commercials.”