Stateline Story

State Politicians Discover YouTube

  • October 10, 2006
  • By Philip Ewing
The video-sharing Web site YouTube, perhaps best known as the home of cats performing “Hamlet” or the explosive results of dunking Mentos into Diet Coke, also has become the showcase for another type of spectacle – politics.
 
Across the country, prominent and not-so-prominent political campaigns are taking advantage of YouTube's free video hosting to disseminate messages too expensive or too controversial for broadcast television. The site appeals to campaigns because it can help preserve opponents' gaffes, provides independent candidates access to a big set of viewers, and gives political amateurs the ability to say something about their local candidates and campaigns.
 
Some uses of YouTube are orthodox extensions of typical campaign strategy: The Web site lets candidates re-show TV spots they've already produced without the expense of broadcast airtime. But it also gives them a new tool to embarrass their opponents. For example, in Illinois, Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka's campaign posted a video of her opponent, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, cornered by reporters asking about a fund-raising scandal. Blagojevich's campaign YouTube site contains footage of Topinka.
 
“If there's ever a gaffe that's caught in video, it's going to end up on YouTube,” said Steven Clift, chairman of Minneapolis-based e-democracy.org, a Web site devoted to the interactions between the Internet and democracy.
 
Others uses are decidedly less conventional, as when Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson, an independent, used his YouTube page to criticize major-party opponents when they refused to debate him. In the video, Hutchinson gives a speech standing between two people in giant duck suits and denounces the other politicians for “ducking” the debate.
 
YouTube also enables political amateurs – opinionated enthusiasts unaffiliated with parties or candidates – to share homemade videos that comment on issues or races. In one such clip, a beanpole-thin caricature of Idaho Interim Gov. Jim Risch (R) disco-dances with cartoon "fat cats" as a stream of pennies flies into their pockets – a protest of the state's recent 1-cent sales tax hike. Another lambastes Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, up for re-election in November, for neglecting Atlanta's mass transportation system.
 
To be sure, Internet video today plays a minor role in political campaigns compared with other uses of the digital superhighway – including general Web sites and e-mail advertisements – and with uses of traditional media, such as broadcast TV spots and direct-mail advertising. But online video in general, and YouTube in particular, are being used more than ever before.
 
One recent high-profile demonstration of YouTube's ability to affect politics was a video that showed U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) calling a Democratic volunteer “macaca,” a word that can be interpreted as an ethnic slur. The video appeared online. Anyone surfing the Internet could see it, and the moment gained national prominence, erasing Allen's lead in polls over his opponent, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb.
 
YouTube is one of the 10 most popular destinations on the Internet, according to the traffic-ranking service Alexa.com. The Bivings Group, a Washington, D.C., Internet and new media-monitoring firm, estimated at the end of September that people had spent a total of 9,305 years watching YouTube videos since the site went live in 2005. YouTube's enables political campaigns to reach an enormous audience – or a choice sliver of one – for almost no cost, and with a minimum of technical fuss.
 
“It's a very easy way to take almost any form of video, get it up into a Flash format, which is very accessible, and get it onto the Web,” Clift said. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Web search giant Google was in talks to buy YouTube for as much as $1.6 billion.
 
That ease of use is what led Arizona state Sen. Ed Ableser, a Democrat, to use his YouTube site to take viewers along on a typical day in his life. In his video, Ableser plays foosball with young boys and girls, meets with constituents, and generally represents himself as a forthright man of affairs. But it also shows him jogging, playing with his dog, and out on a date with his girlfriend, Erin. (“He even has time for romance,” reads the caption, displayed with video of them smooching in a restaurant.)
 
The video is shaky and at a low resolution, shot by a campaign volunteer and edited by Ableser on his computer. Still, he said he was satisfied with it.
 
“Everyone loved it, even though they said, sure, it was cheesy at times,” Ableser said. “But it was raw, natural. It showed me being myself, rather than something contrived.”
 
Ableser' campaign accepts public financing, so saving money was another factor in deciding to make the YouTube movie.
 
“This is the new type of campaigning,” he said. “The Internet's become so instrumental for getting our voice out and our message out. [Another video] is our next step, something more specific, on message.”
 
Low cost and ease of use is also what enabled software engineer Roger Goun, a self-described “geek volunteer,” to start ListenUpNH.org, a nonpartisan project in which he films New Hampshire political candidates and posts their videos on his Web site and YouTube.
 
Goun will make a free video of any politician who asks, irrespective of their party or the office they're seeking. The videos are quite different from typically polished, heavily edited campaign ads. The ListenUpNH candidates sit in front of a plain curtain and speak straight into the camera for four or five minutes, talking about themselves and their platforms.
 
“One of the things that amazes me about this project is how quickly things get cheaper and easier to do,” Goun said. Last winter he bought a high-definition video camera and a few lights for his amateur studio. “This was $100,000 worth of equipment five years ago, but now it's well within the reach of somebody's credit card.”