The YouTube Election

October 2007

The damaging YouTube video of presidential hopeful John Edwards isn’t that incriminating. Unlike former Senator Goerge Allen, he’s not seen making an ethnic slur. Instead, he’s shown primping his hair for two minutes while he waits to go on camera — all to the music of “I Feel Pretty” from the musical West Side Story.

As a voter, you tell yourself that it’s really the issues that matter, the candidate’s stance on Iraq, his or her healthcare plan, the serious issue of immigration. But when it comes to putting a checkmark on the ballot, it’s hard to get rid of that image of a man seemingly obsessed with his appearance. You want gravitas in your president, not someone who’d comb the lock on his forehead dozens of times before getting it just right.

This is the YouTube Election, in which two innocuous minutes of private time in a man’s life can influence whether he becomes president.

In 2004 YouTube didn’t yet exist. In the 2008 election, every candidate sees YouTube as a major factor. Each prays he or she won’t be the next victim of an embarrassing private moment made public. And each has his or her YouTube strategy, in which videos are made with the hope of “going viral” — being so forceful or catchy that they are widely circulated and are seen by millions.

Senator Barack Obama so far seems to be a major beneficiary of the viral video. His campaign had nothing to do with a music video titled “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” featuring an attractive young woman who prances and dances around. By mid-June it had been seen by at least 20 million viewers, with some commentators saying that the video contributes to Obama’s image of being young and hip.

Before the web and YouTube, neither of these videos would ever have been seen by millions of voters. No candidate would have dared create an attack ad showing his opponent combing his hair. No candidate would have dared create an ad with an attractive woman in a bikini. But in the YouTube election, the common person becomes a factor: anyone with an inexpensive camera and an Internet connection can make a video that could potentially influence the election.

You can bet that at every campaign stop there is someone there with a digital camera hoping to catch a gaffe.

The effect of this is varied. On the one hand, candidates are having to be more cautious than ever before with every word that they speak. In addition, campaigns that were accustomed to being tightly scripted are finding that they can no longer control the message they’re giving out. YouTube is even playing a role in the debates. In July the Democratic hopefuls participated in a televised debate in which the questions were presented via YouTube videos. Instead of a polished moderator, those asking questions were common people, sometimes in extreme situations. A YouTube debate among Republican candidates is scheduled for November 28.

Internet video has had an impact on almost every campaign so far. In addition to the Edwards video, other “gotchas” include a video of John McCain singing about bombing Iran to the tune of the song “Barbara Ann” and Rudy Guiliani in full drag getting kissed by Donald Trump.

Also playing a role are videos by supporters or detractors that are catchy enough to get a lot of attention. An Obama supporter, for example, created “Vote Different,” a mashup meant to negatively influence the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He used the famous 1984 Apple ad in which an athletic woman runs through a crowd of human drones watching a large, big-brother-style screen and smashes it. The mashup replaced the original image onscreen with Clinton’s.

In addition, the candidates are themselves creating videos that they hope will go viral. In late June Clinton’s spoof of “The Sopranos” was a big hit. In two days it had been viewed 100,000 times on YouTube, over a million times on her own video site, and 200,000 times on other sites.

All of the campaigns have been posting videos, either on their own sites or YouTube. And in some cases they had posted hundreds of them by mid-summer. The Edwards campaign, for example, had posted 120 on YouTube. And yes, it includes response to the hair issue: a video set to the song “Hair” showing a montage of different hair styles followed by images showing war and other serious matters and ending by asking, “What Really Matters?”

A number or web sites track and comment on videos related to the presidential campaign. PrezVid.com has daily updates on candidate-related videos. MeFeedia offers a guide to videos, videoblogs, and podcasts about the Presidential Election 2008. Channel ’08 is a Washington Post blog featuring daily updates on candidate videos and commentary on them. And YouTube's collection of videos lets you know where candidates stand on various issues.


© 2007 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

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