Running for President, YouTube Style

Steve Grove believes in the wisdom of crowds. And the smartest people he knows are YouTube's estimated 71 million users, who collectively post and watch as many as 2.5 billion online videos a month. As YouTube's political director, Grove, 30, considers himself less an editor than a "curator" of the Web site's "chaotic sea of content." A lot of the site's political fare is anything but high-minded or serious—the sultry YouTube fave "Obama Girl" and all those wonderfully snarky homemade videos mocking Hillary Clinton's robotic laugh or John Edwards's obsessive hair and makeup routine. But user-created clips are also shaping coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign in ways unimagined in 2006, when a viral video of Sen. George Allen calling his rival's campaign worker "macaca" ended the Virginia Republican's career—and led to what Grove calls "the birth of YouTube politics."

YouTube, which didn't even exist three years ago, found its way into the mainstream awfully fast. At presidential debates cosponsored by the site, candidates had to endure—and pretend to enjoy—oddball video questions submitted by YouTubers. Democrats were quizzed about global warming by an animated melting snowman; Republicans were grilled about gun control by a guy swinging a rifle. "If you're not on YouTube, you're not part of the discussion," says Grove, a former Boston Globe and ABC News reporter. "It's the world's largest town hall."

The candidates, too, have learned to use the site to their advantage, uploading sometimes serious, sometimes quirky, snippets of themselves. The most clever bits get spread around the Web and picked up by TV. "HuckChuckFacts"—a tongue-in-cheek endorsement video featuring Mike Huckabee and action star Chuck Norris trading manly compliments—is a classic of the genre. Grove says the campaigns and their supporters also use the site to launch—and respond to—political attacks. When someone posted a 1994 video of Mitt Romney declaring himself pro-choice, his staff quickly slapped up a clip of the candidate explaining why he's now against abortion.

Grove is making it even easier for politicians to take advantage of YouTube's reach. The site now offers each candidate a "YouChoose" channel that lets them interact with YouTubers via video clips. Users can talk back by posting their own video responses. The political videos of one user, Georgetown student James Kotecki, became so popular that Ron Paul and Huckabee showed up in his dorm room for Webcam interviews. "Our goal is to improve the way politicians and voters talk to each other," says Grove. If "Obama Girl" winds up snagging a prime-time convention speech, Grove will know he has truly arrived.