The YouTube Election

In the hours before President George W. Bush was set to give his final State of the Union message last January, Sen. Barack Obama was already preparing his response. His campaign wasn't planning a press conference or appearances on network news. Instead, they shot and uploaded video of the democratic presidential candidate's comments onto the only site that could rival primetime power—YouTube.

With more than 81 million unique viewers a month and 13 hours worth of video uploaded every minute, the Google-owned video-sharing site has become the go-to portal for all clips political during this presidential election. It's where candidates set up shop by creating their own YouTube channels to upload official campaign videos. It's also where fervent supporters flexed their online skills with viral hits like "I Got A Crush On Obama" and "Wassup 2008."

The early assumptions about YouTube's potential political role were largely based on one word—"macaca." In August 2006, Sen. George Allen referred to his opponent's campaign aide at a rally by that name as the young man filmed him. The clip went viral when it was uploaded to YouTube, and within weeks the Virginia Republican's career was effectively over. "After that, I think the assumption was that this was going to be a gotcha medium," says Steve Grove, YouTube's news and politics editor. "That politicians were going to get steamrolled by this thing because it was going to catch them in all these moments when they didn't want to be caught."

Unlike political campaigns, which are typically built from the top down, YouTube is inherently a grass-roots network, which means S. R. Sidarth, the young man who filmed Senator Allen, could have as much of an impact on politics as The possible power of the forum made presidential hopefuls—even those who struggled to understand it—jump in. By the time the nominees embarked on the final stretch of the campaign, one thing was clear—if it was political and it was important, there was probably a video of it on YouTube. When the election ended, all YouTube videos mentioning Senator Obama had received a total of 1.9 billion views compared with Sen. John McCain's, which got 1.1 billion views. TubeMogul, a measurement service, estimates that just the videos that ran on Obama's YouTube channel alone were watched the equivalent of 14.5 million hours, with McCain's channel racking up about 488,152 hours. Had the Obama camp purchased the same amount of airtime on TV it would have cost them roughly $46 million and the McCain camp $1.5 million, according to an analysis on the TechPresident blog. On YouTube it was free. It was also priceless. A Pew Research Center report titled "Internet and Campaign 2008" found that 39 percent of voters watched campaign-related video online during the election cycle. That's higher than the percentage of voters who said they checked out candidate Web sites, political blogs or social-networking sites. Not that both candidates knew just how to take advantage of that.

According to YouTube's Grove, Senator McCain seemed like an ideal candidate for the site. He was, after all, the ultimate straight talker who made himself accessible and loved to engage folks on a personal level. When McCain's camp first started uploading videos in 2007, there was an obvious effort to get McCain to translate that appeal online. In his first personal video, titled "Government Reform," he came across as a regular guy having a conversation with whomever might be watching. The camp also made some innovative choices like having campaign manager Rick Davis give strategy briefings. While the idea was solid, the problem was that the video was essentially a slideshow presentation with a voice-over. Visual? Sort of. Interesting to watch? Not so much. There were also the occasional viral hits, like "Celeb," which compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Within a few short days it became the most-viewed video on the camp's channel. "That's what YouTube does," says Mark SooHoo, deputy e-campaign director for McCain 2008. "It allows a video to quickly become a part of the national political conversation." But Paris Hilton's response video quickly changed the tone of that discussion. Similar stumbles continued to pop up along the campaign's online journey, which were magnified by the limited number of video postings to their channel—a total of 330 compared to Obama's 1,821. Fewer videos also showed the personal McCain that chatted about "Government Reform" only a year earlier. By late 2008, it appeared that not only had the Straight Talk Express shut out reporters, it was slacking on its YouTube Channel as well.

The Obama camp, by contrast, took a targeted approach to how their channel would be run. One of the first things they did was hire an Emmy-winning CNN producer to shape what the camp would post. The basic idea was to document Obama on the road and upload speech clips from the trail, clips of voters talking about the senator and informal meetings of Obama talking to his staff. They even had camp manager David Plouffe—who likely took a page from Rick Davis's playbook—give strategy briefings by chatting into a webcam in his office and occasionally referring to a slide. It was, in essence a 50-state strategy for the Web. "Today it seems like an obvious decision but back then it really wasn't," says Grove of the operation. "They [created] a sort of experience that made you feel like you were there and that the campaign was personal."

Traditionally, campaigns have produced TV ads, press releases and direct mail, often thinking of themselves as advertisers within, say, a TV show. "What we tried to be on YouTube was the actual television show," says Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's New Media director. That would explain why Obama first used his channel to respond to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy and later to break the news that he would forgo public financing for the general election. Grove says the constant pumping of two or three videos online a day left no question about the camp's key messages. "That's why user-generated ads like "Yes, We Can" really caught on," he says. "Because they were so well tailored to the campaign's points."

The laserlike approach created thousands of online foot soldiers that took it upon themselves to serve not only as supporters, but also defenders. Where former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was Swift-Boated with few effective counterattacks during the 2004 election, Obama supporters often came to his rescue by posting video responses to online smears.

But not all posts could be rebuttled. McCain had his "Bomb Iran" moment, which folks were reminded of well into the presidential debates. Obama had the Reverend Wright clips, which forced him to address his relationship with the preacher and eventually renounce the man. Still, YouTube played more like the go-to source for campaigns and viewers and less like the virtual burn book many candidates imagined.

President-elect Obama plans to continue using online video when he's in the Oval Office. In a November 2007 interview on YouTube, he told Grove it would be like President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of radio during his administration. "We're going to have 21st-century fireside chats where I'm speaking directly to the American people through video streams because it allows me to interact directly in a way that I think will enhance democracy and strengthen our government," Obama said. There will be some differences, of course. Just as Obama used the medium to respond to Bush's State of the Union address, Obama's listeners will likely use video to respond to him. Call it the YouTube effect.