What a difference two years can make. In August 2006, Sen. George Allen (R-VA) was on the campaign trail for his re-election – something that was thought by many to be a sure thing. Then, at a stop in Breaks, VA, he made the now infamous “macaca” comment to a volunteer staffer of opponent Jim Webb, which was caught on tape and posted on YouTube. The video garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and months later, Allen conceded the election to Webb after a close race.
At the Republican National Convention earlier this month, Allen was once again featured in a video on the popular site. But this time, he was speaking into a YouTube microphone, interviewed by the site's politics and news team, which is led by Steve Grove. The irony of the situation is not lost on Grove, a former ABC News journalist.
“[It was] just two years after his infamous YouTube gaffe that arguably launched the beginning of what we might call ‘YouTube politics,'” he says. “In a way, it prevented him from being up on the stage accepting the nomination, because he was certainly a rising star in the party until that point.”
If digital media had the power to derail a political campaign – and arguably a career – in 2006 (only 18 months after YouTube launched), political campaign watchers are curious to see how Internet video, social networks, and other online media will affect the upcoming presidential election. The answer to that question, of course, is still about six weeks away. And many political and new media experts are watching closely to see how digital media will fit into overall political communications in the future.
While political parties and their candidates are using the Web more than ever in their communications, the Internet is certainly not a new platform for such efforts. David Almacy, VP of digital strategy for North America at Waggener Edstrom and White House Internet director from 2005 to 2007, notes that President Bill Clinton was the first to create a Web site and encourage government agencies to also have one.
“What's changed is how people have used the medium and how the user-generated content [has grown],” he says. “[For] the younger generation... it's a primary form of communication – whether it's online or through mobile devices.”
Indeed, while it's hard to remember a time without YouTube, the site did not even exist during the last presidential election. Yet, this time around seven of the 16 candidates announced their intentions through a YouTube video, according to Grove. (Barack Obama used the site to announce his candidacy, while John McCain made his announcement during an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.) In addition, the YouTube-sponsored primary debates with CNN allowed average citizens to have an unprecedented level of input into the process, with everything from a “snowman” raising the issue of global warming to two lesbians from Brooklyn asking about gay marriage.
Certainly YouTube's popularity was bound to increase the viewership of online video, but changes in technology have also aided its growth as a political communications tool, says Cyrus Krohn, director of the eCampaign division for the Republican National Committee.
“I think the biggest difference between 2004 and 2008 is broadband enabling better use of online video,” he says. “We're now starting to see mobile introduce itself into this process. I think in 2012, mobile will be the big technology component when you look at how it's evolving, particularly the melding of mobile and video. We'll go from watching YouTube videos on our laptops to videos on our mobile devices.”
Communications team members from the Democratic National Committee, McCain's campaign, and Obama's campaign did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.
Jon Henke, a strategic consultant with New Media Strategies who handled Internet outreach for Fred Thompson's campaign, notes that Web communications' growth coincides with a new era in politics.
“We're increasingly reaching the age of the permanent campaign – where there is some infrastructure within the party or the movement itself that is permanently engaged in a campaign, and the candidates themselves pick up where those have left off, and use that infrastructure... to move their campaigns,” he says. “A lot of that infrastructure exists online, and that is what is being used to move stories, research, narratives, and to communicate with influentials and activists.”
Like any good “brand,” the McCain and Obama campaigns have utilized what have by now become “standard” digital PR tools: e-mail newsletters, online video, Facebook pages, blogger outreach, etc. Yet, in the case of a presidential campaign, the stakes are much higher. For any political campaign, there is only one goal – garner the most votes. And there are three accepted ways to accomplish that goal: raise money, organize supporters, and attract media attention. Web communications have significantly aided all of those objectives.
“I look at the Internet as a new means of voter contact,” Krohn says. “As more people are consuming their content digitally, we as a nation, regardless of party affiliation, have to find the voters where they are – and that means electronically.”
Separate of the number of Facebook friends or views of online videos, digital communications efforts have helped the presidential campaigns where it matters the most – the wallet, says Nicco Mele, founder of EchoDitto and Howard Dean's Webmaster in 2004.
“In 2004, all of the candidates combined probably raised less than $200 million online,” he says. “We don't know exactly how much is being raised in this cycle, but I bet you it's closer to $1 billion [for] all candidates. That's a pretty gigantic order of magnitude difference.”
Obama's campaign recently announced that it had raised a record $66 million in August, with 500,000 new donors; McCain's campaign raised $47 million in August, setting a record for the senator.
“The Obama campaign has figured out better and more effectively than any other campaign in history how to raise money. All of those Facebook groups matter because it helps them raise money,” Mele says. “Will they help him find voters? I am certain the Obama campaign is going to try to figure that out. That is definitely an unknown. If we had been able to figure out how to do that, Howard Dean might be president right now.”
YouTube's Grove agrees that figuring out how to translate online activity into votes is the “$64,000 question,” but notes that there is reason to be hopeful that it will have an effect on voter turnout.
“It's basic human psychology – once you've taken an action, you're invested,” he says. “The Internet lowers the barrier to action. So many people now have commented on or viewed a video or shared it with a friend – they've actually made a political statement... And by doing that you're at least one hook into being invested into the campaign. We're hopeful that... will lead to the biggest step, which is going out and voting.”
Krohn says the RNC has taken steps to complement online efforts with offline outreach.
“I feel like we're very on top of utilizing the Web to moving people from online to offline,” he says, citing a recent event in Fairfax, VA, that attracted more than 20,000 people, many of whom RSVPd online. “I'm really bullish on the [remaining time until the election] and how we're going to use the Web to compete.”
In fact, as is the case with any other campaign, New Media Strategies' Henke says that it is most effective to have online communications be part of a broader set of tools to generate voter awareness and action.
“It's best not to think about the blogosphere as a get-out-the-vote mechanism – it's not,” he says. “The second or third order effect [is what is important]. The Obama campaign is doing it very well; they're using the Internet, building their lists and communities, and then connecting people in geographic communities or specific interest areas. The campaign doesn't have to be the enforcement mechanism to get people to vote; they get people locally and [then] there's a peer mechanism.”
Another communications opportunity – and challenge – that digital media present is the speed at which a message can be disseminated.
“[The Obama campaign is] pretty aggressive in making the candidate accessible to his supporters on the Web,” EchoDitto's Mele says. “Immediately after Biden's speech [at the DNC], they took a video of Biden and Obama backstage and e-mailed it to its supporter list.
“In the past, the media was a critical part of reaching the public. It still is,” he adds. “But now Obama has got 6 million Americans who will read... and watch what he sends them. That's not to say he doesn't need the media. But he has a very powerful tool that, eight years ago, candidates did not have.”
Henke cites the McCain campaign as being strong in its response videos. Indeed, during the DNC, the RNC's digital team set up NotReady08.com, with streaming press conferences and articles to counter the Democrats and get into the news cycle. During the RNC, gopconvention2008.com featured streaming video, including interviews with speakers as they came off the stage.
No matter what the outcome on November 4, one thing is for certain: digital media will play a significant role in both the parties' future communications efforts.
“I think the digital relationship becomes equally important, if not a little longer lasting,” Krohn says. “After the election, the TV ads are going to stop, the direct mail is going to slow down, but the social networking audience... that has forged these friendships and dialogue online, that doesn't stop. This is probably one constant of the continuation of the election process. We have to maintain that, because that's where the dialogue continues to take place.”