News & Politics

Smile, You’re on YouTube

How social networks, bloggers, “macaca moments,” and other products of the new technology are changing politics—and presidential campaigns.

Richard Nixon learned the hard way how new technology can change an election. How will YouTube affect 2008’s politics?

The 2008 presidential election is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. For the first time since 1952, there is no president or vice president running for reelection. Beyond that, the 2008 campaign will be the first in a new era of American politics—the first where technology is both the medium and the message.

When the Supreme Court settled Bush v. Gore in 2000, it was a very different world. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were in the planning stage, Saddam Hussein was in power, blogs and podcasts barely existed, cell phones were still a novelty, Black­Berries were a year old, and the iPod was just an idea on a drawing board at Apple. Google was in its infancy and MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube were years away.

In 2000, much of the world was on dial-up connections. By the beginning of 2007, nearly 90 percent of Americans reported using broadband to access the Internet and more than one of three Americans was using the Web wirelessly. The technology that over the last decade has transformed the global economy is transforming the campaign process as well, so that this race will be run as much on the World Wide Web as in town squares and on television.

Thanks to technology, the 2008 campaign will be unlike any other.

There have been presidential campaigns in which candidates broke new ground with technology—such as the campaign of 2000, when John McCain and Bill Bradley found new money flowing to them online. And there have been campaigns in which new technology has broken candidates—such as 1960, when Richard Nixon’s candidacy went downhill after his televised debates with John F. Kennedy. But 2008 will be the first presidential campaign defined by technology.

As candidates talk about innovation, the challenge facing America from the rise of India and China, and how technology is linked to soaring healthcare costs, they will be trying to raise money online, respond to YouTube attack ads, and send text messages to sites like Twitter. Add to these new media the breakthroughs and advances in “microtargeting”—the tools and databases pioneered by the Bush campaign in 2004 that allow a candidate to address individual voters on their most important issues—and we are in the midst of a presidential campaign that’s transformed by technology at every level.

The signposts of the first tech campaign are all around: Candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced their campaigns online first, they’ve raised millions from small-dollar donors online, and they’ve traded barbs on YouTube. In August, the Democrats held a debate in which the questions came from Americans who posted their videotaped questions on YouTube; the Republicans will hold a similar debate at the end of November.

In the 2008 election, four tools—online video, cell phones, blogs, and social-networking sites—provide unparalleled power to ordinary voters and have created a new infrastructure for launching—and rebutting—political attacks. Add in the power of grassroots small-donor fundraising—what allowed Howard Dean, John McCain, and Bill Bradley to challenge the establishment—and the 2008 election will be conducted on a playing field where the party establishment will have the least control of any election in American history. The new landscape will also force campaigns to adapt, becoming ever more creative to win the eyeballs they were once able to purchase with a few network ads during the evening news and prime-time sitcoms.

The history books will likely reflect that 2008 is the campaign of voter-generated content—where ordinary people seize the moment and use the powerful tools at their fingertips to create and spread information without any help from the campaigns.

It’s important to note that since its inception, the Internet has happened to candidates—they’ve always lagged behind in adoption of technology, failing to realize what it could do and thus being swept along with it as ordinary people step up and transform the process. McCain and Bradley didn’t realize the financial power that the Internet would bring them until it did. The Howard Dean 2004 Meetup groups were already swelling before campaign manager Joe Trippi put a link on the campaign’s home page. When it comes to the Web, the campaigns are more often than not getting yanked out of the station as the train pulls away.

Online campaigning pioneer Henry Cope­land—who founded a site called Blogads, which provides income for bloggers to pursue their “hobby” as a full-time job—explains: “We’re still just at the early stage of understanding what happens when you shift from a hierarchical society to a conversation-based one. The network is so much more powerful than this top-down stuff.”

MySpace, MyCampaign

In the 2004 election, social-networking sites such as Friendster and Orkut had the field almost to themselves, but by the 2008 campaign, MySpace and Facebook had grown to encompass many millions of users. Facebook today has more than 40 million active users and is growing at a rate of a million people a week.

Farouk Olu Aregbe was the coordinator of student-government services at the University of Missouri when in January 2007 he started the group One Million Strong for Barack on Facebook, the social-networking site started by a Harvard student that has blossomed into an industry leader. Within 24 hours, the new group passed the thousand-person mark, and Aregbe watched as it took on a life of its own; it’s now closing in on 400,000 members.

To put that number in perspective, at the end of 2003, Howard Dean’s entire e-mail list of supporters was a record-setting half a million. The grassroots-founded Facebook group was actually larger than most presidential candidates’ e-mail lists ever get—and it had happened nearly a year before the first votes of the 2008 election would be counted.

As the Obama campaign discovered, the world of MySpace—the social-networking site now owned by Rupert Murdoch and used by some 200 million people worldwide—was a complicated one with rules all its own. After seeing Obama speak at the 2004 Democratic convention, Joe Anthony, a paralegal in Los Angeles, started an unofficial MySpace profile for the soon-to-be Illinois senator. As Obama’s popularity grew, so did his online presence: Anthony ended up managing a huge online venture as Obama’s “friends” surpassed 160,000.

In the spring of 2007, talks between Anthony and Obama’s presidential campaign to work together broke down and Obama’s campaign asked MySpace to hand over Anthony’s valuable URL, Joe Rospars, who four years before had shown up to work for Howard Dean’s presidential-campaign blog, had risen to be Obama’s director of new media—and the former grassroots blogger found himself in the unlikely position of representing “the man” in the blogosphere. The resulting furor—eventually smoothed over—ended with both sides being cast in poor light online and damaged Obama’s grassroots fervor, but it underscored a lesson for 2008: Campaigns aren’t the ones in control anymore.

“Macaca Moments”

There’s an argument to be made that YouTube, the online video site now owned by Google, delivered the 2006 US Senate elections to the Democrats; two GOP incumbents, George Allen and Conrad Burns, went down to defeat after they came under the attack of embarrassing YouTube videos. While Virginia senator George Allen faced a particularly devastating situation with his “macaca” comment, none of the 2008 candidates will escape the wrath of YouTube.

The rules of the game have changed—and not in the candidates’ favor. In the new world, candidates have to be prepared that anything they say could travel around the world before they finish a speech. As Republican leader after Republican leader got up to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March 2007—from Tom Tancredo to 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani—two operatives in blazers and ties from the Democratic National Committee videotaped every word from the back corner.

It’s easy to justify the resources that political campaigns will pour into the 2008 video tracking, as one needs only a single macaca moment to nail a candidate. This time the Democratic operatives hit pay dirt twice. First, conservative commentator Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot” in her CPAC speech. Second, after the campaign of Mitt Romney, who had spoken just before Coulter, labeled her remark offensive, video leaked showing Romney and Coulter laughing together backstage.

Republicans aren’t the only targets. John Edwards was the subject of a video parody that showed him primping for the camera to the tune of “I Feel Pretty.” Hillary Clinton took a hit when, at a speech commemorating the civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, she affected a southern accent. Barack Obama’s campaign found itself scrambling after a YouTube clip showed him misspeaking about the number of people who had died in a Kansas tornado—it was 12; he said 10,000.

Another YouTube clip of Obama showed the freshman senator campaigning in a poor Cleveland neighborhood. In language probably more blunt than intended, he told a crowd to contribute to his campaign: “I want everybody here to pony up $5, $10 for this campaign. I don’t care how poor you are, you’ve got $5.”

Hillary Clinton—after announcing her campaign on her Web site and hosting some awkward online listening sessions that were mocked by bloggers—showed inspiration with an online contest to choose her campaign theme song. But that didn’t stop two California comedians who host a weekly online video show, “Ask a Ninja,” from filming a parody of Clinton’s efforts that garnered some 20,000 views in the first 24 hours after it was posted.

Mitt Romney demonstrated a by-the-book response in the YouTube era when he was confronted with video of a debate from his 1994 Senate bid against Ted Kennedy. The clip showed him professing quite liberal views, thereby threatening his aggressive courting of social conservatives. Only eight hours after the video surfaced on YouTube, Romney’s campaign had posted a YouTube response: footage of the former Massachusetts governor calling in to a conservative radio talk show to place the controversial clip in context. Showing the candidate on video explaining himself in his own voice was a critical point of the response because it proved it wasn’t just some staffer or flack apologizing in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

The lesson of the new campaign is similar to the Miranda warning offered in the United States to suspects placed under arrest: Anything you say can and will be used against you. At the same time, participating in the online conversation can help build trust. Romney effectively combated the YouTube attack by getting online quickly and forcefully and by explaining what was going on. He treated the online audience as people who deserved his time and attention.

In campaigns past, that hasn’t always been true—too often voters have been merely an afterthought in the political-industrial complex—but Romney understood that his future depends on engaging people on their terms, not his.

Online Influentials

Early this year, a grassroots-generated ad attacking Hillary Clinton by parodying a classic Apple commercial took off like a rocket. It got hot when it hit some of the A-list blogs and other sites that hundreds of thousands of people visit each day.

Dailykos, for instance, attracts roughly as many daily readers as the Chicago Tribune. Thousands of diarists—those who blog themselves—spend an average of two hours a day on the site, debating, chatting, and gossiping about politics. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the site’s namesake, is one of the Web’s new superstars—a hyperinfluential.

Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and Roper polling executives Jon Berry and Ed Keller in The Influentials have explained how certain “connectors” influence people about what to buy, where to eat, and for whom to vote. Berry and Keller posit that one in ten Americans is “the influential” among his or her peers. The duo’s work on identifying influentials affected how Bush advisers Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman approached the 2004 campaign.

Rove and Mehlman identified 2 million influentials across the country to target for special attention and invited Berry and Keller to the campaign headquarters to make a presentation and hear the campaign’s plans. As the two researchers left the nondescript building after seeing the campaign’s strategy, Berry said to Keller: “It’s over. Bush will win.”

Where can these influentials be found? Studies have reported that more than 70 percent of blog readers count as influentials—meaning that getting on blogs is increasingly important to anyone hoping to spread a message.

Even beyond the one in ten influentials, the Web’s disaggregated nature has seen another layer—the 1-in-1,000 person who is a “hyperinfluential.” The impact that these major players will have on the 2008 race can be seen in the ways that stories and events evolve online outside of the mainstream media.

Matt Drudge, founder of the gossip site the Drudge Report—whose attention to a story online can almost guarantee its pick-up in mainstream media—may be more like a one-in-ten-million online networker, but this top tier of bloggers is constantly evolving and changing.

“The so-called ‘A-List’ is an open club,” blogged Steve Rubel, who as an executive at Edelman Public Relations has built Micropersuasion, one of the best blogs on the new digital era. “Anyone with talent can become a key influencer, no matter what community they inhabit. There’s also always a changing of the guard. New voices replace the ‘fading stars.’ Everyone has a chance to rise.”

There was no major leftist blog written by women until Jane Hamsher broke off from Daily Kos to found Firedoglake—just as in the era before YouTube, there was no political blog that integrated video into its posts before John Amato launched Crooksandliars. The two sites are now among the most influential on the left. Hamsher and Firedoglake’s team of “reporters” provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, becoming some of the first bloggers admitted to cover a federal trial as their readership climbed to nearly 100,000 page views a day.

There are massive differences between the right and left online. The left has a far more powerful, larger, and more popular blogosphere community, and its top bloggers differ in one key aspect: Whereas top conservative bloggers like Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin are pundits and talk-show hosts in their day jobs who also happen to blog, on the left a new power structure of ordinary bloggers like Kos, Hamsher, and Jerome Armstrong at MyDD has emerged. The left’s blogosphere has grown up in an era where Republicans controlled government, giving them a target and an ongoing battle to wage. The right’s blogosphere has grown only in fits and starts within a party that’s both in power and by its nature more hierarchical.

This is a challenge for the GOP because the Internet is becoming ever more important in people’s decision-making. A 2006 Pew survey showed that 60 million Americans said the Internet had helped them make big decisions or negotiate their way through major episodes in their lives in the past two years—from health problems to careers to where to live.

Speaking just about politics, some 15 percent of all American adults—double the number from the 2002 midterm—reported that the Internet was the main source of their political news in the 2006 election.

“Can You Elect Us Now?”

Twitter is one of those Web sites you’ve probably never heard of that might end up changing the world. It allows people to create groups of friends and send regular 140-character updates to their computers, instant-messaging programs, or even their cell phones—a trend called “microblogging” that allows people to spread information quickly to a wide range of followers.

“What happens if you have a Twitter group that just follows Romney through his day?” muses Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads. “People text in, ‘Just saw him here,’ ‘Just saw him there.’ ” Imagine the power, Copeland says, of groups of Twitter devotees tracking elected officials throughout their day and holding them accountable to how they’re using their time.

A May government study found that nearly a third of 18-to-29-year-olds used only a cell phone and didn’t have a land-line phone at home. That number has implications for elections because pollsters aren’t allowed to call cell phones—meaning that young people will be harder to predict as a political voting bloc—and most automated “robo-calls” from campaigns don’t go to cell phones. At the same time, a growth in text messaging and the adoption of sites such as Twitter allows campaigns to reach cell-phone-toting supporters more easily.

The new technology may be second nature to teenagers and other younger Americans, but it’s still a way off from being embraced by the generation raised on rotary phones.

“It’s one of the most interesting generational changes where you have people in the same room, live in the same country, who get their information in completely different places,” says Will Robinson, a Democratic consultant and tech-campaign pioneer. “It’s like ‘Why would I watch local TV news and wait for some guy in a plaid jacket to tell me what the weather is when I can go online or check my cell phone?’ ”

John Edwards, for one, didn’t wait to be targeted by a grassroots network of trackers. He jumped early on the bandwagon and sent in Twitter updates about what cities he was visiting and what he was doing on the campaign trail. At 12:43 pm on March 10, he Twittered: “Community meeting on healthcare in Newton, IA. Then 1hr1/2 drive to Burlington for a similar meeting. Later tonight, back in NC.” Three days later at 1:06 pm, he updated: “Great to see my family. In NC today. Call with student reporters. Interview w Wolf Blitzer. College Tour Rally at Bennett in Greensboro.”

Barack Obama joined soon thereafter, and Hillary Clinton started her cell-phone text-messaging campaign by asking supporters to vote for the campaign’s theme song. Now they regularly send updates and special messages to those supporters whose cell-phone numbers the campaigns have—tips on major speeches, controversies, and when candidates are appearing on TV.

As more phones such as the iPhone play video, supporters will also be able to download YouTube videos and campaign commercials, playing them for friends and colleagues at the water cooler or the bar—further transforming the electoral and marketing worlds.

Editor at large Garrett M. Graff ( was deputy national press secretary for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. This article is adapted from The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.This article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Washingtonian Magazine.