Analysis: YouTube becomes a popular spot along the campaign trail

Posted by Mark Raby

Chicago (IL) - As politicians strive to look for ways to combat new revelations like Tivo-powered commercial-skipping and the continuing transition to on-demand online video, the 2006 midterm elections have made an unlikely strong presence on a new platform - YouTube. The video sharing site now has what could lead to a vital role in the upcoming round of elections.

YouTube has had a phenomenal run that recently climax in a $1.6 billion sale of the property to Google. And while some questioned that Google was nuts to spend that kind of money for a company that is not even two years old, the implications of possible future impacts of YouTube and the way we consume information could mean that Google got the site for a bargain basement price.

The enormous reach of the site does not only make it a convenient platform, but also an interesting tool to purposely spread specific entertainment and information. The site is slowly but sureley evolving from a toy to a serious commercial vehicle, shown for example by the fact that some U.S. content providers are warming up to YouTube. Even more interesting, there are first signs that politicians have discovere dthe value of the platform.

As the first major election since YouTube's creation last year, the free online video platform of course appears to be a wise choice for candidates to try to gain more exposure for themselves. There are several reasons why it has become so popular for many candidates, from local office to Congressional campaigns.

Unlike most other advertising mediums, a video on YouTube is available to view anytime, anywhere. This provides users with a significant resource to double-check ads they saw on TV, find other commercials from the same candidate, and if applicable, compare TV ads from two opposing candidates. Also, unlike conventional ads, videos posted on YouTube have two-way communication between the video originator and the individual users. Users can post public comments and feedback directly on the page where the video is hosted, allowing the candidates and campaign teams to get an immediate sense of the public reaction to the ad, which might otherwise take days to get from third-party resources, such as focus groups.

Secondly, another clear advantage is that it's free. While most career politicians have the money and sponsorship to afford endless advertising, the less glamorous candidates get equal opportunity for exposure on YouTube. Thus, it makes the site a lot more attractive for "candidates who are running their campaign in a grassroots kind of way," says Annie Collins, a Democrat running for County Clerk in Kane County, Illinois, who is in favor of using YouTube to attract a new audience. "We're really in the information age now, and people are at their computer all the time," said Collins.

Additionally, the audience is going to be more likely to actually be paying attention when they view a campaign ad or other politically-driven video (e.g. clips from televised debates or on-location videos of candidates on the campaign trail) on YouTube than if it's on in the background on the TV.

Of course, the setback is that users are unlikely to search for videos of candidates they've never heard of, and the campaign videos will have the most prevalent reach to those who are somewhat politically savvy and are searching for ads of candidates for whom they already plan to vote. Therefore, YouTube is more of a complement to more conventional ads than it is a replacement.


JibJab-esque videos are surfacing on YouTube

This could explain some of the reason why political TV ads have been created to have more of a "viral video" feel than previous elections, like Democrat Bob Shamansky's JibJab-esque campaign ad for his Congressional candidacy, or one of Collins's claimed favorites, the TV spot for the Dem who wants to overthrow House speaker Hastert, John Laesch. The likely goal is to strike a nerve with viewers such that they will e-mail the YouTube link to local friends and family, which is the goal of any viral video.

YouTube admittedly has a much stronger reach in the younger crowd, including a large chunk of minors who can't vote. As Collins puts it, the site is "the new hip place to get information," and the hip crowd is becoming increasingly attractive to candidates. According to MTV, whose "Choose or Lose" campaign was a self-proclaimed factor in the record turnout of 21 million young voters in 2004, 18% of all voters in the 2004 election were under 30, up from 16% in 2000.

The MTV statistics also showed that younger voters tended to be more Democratic, with a 10 percentage point advantage for Kerry over Bush in 2004. This could explain why, at least at first glance, Democrats seem to be migrating to YouTube in a bigger way than the Republicans. While campaign ads have popped up for a good chunk of the candidates in major cities, from various individual users, regardless of party affiliation, several Democratic candidates and their campaign teams have set up their own personal YouTube accounts to aggregate all applicable videos into a single page. It also shows the candidate is embracing technology, and metaphorically, could be embracing change, which in and of itself could be a political statement. Several Republican candidates, for some reason or another, are apparently still uneasy about taking advantage of YouTube.

For example, Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for governor of California, and his team have set up an account named angelides2006, where 26 videos showcasing his campaign ads and speeches are easily accessible. On the other side, Republican competitor Arnold Schwarzenegger, while featured in several videos hosted on YouTube showing off his biceps from his days as a bodybuilder, has no official account on the site to advertise his gubernatorial bid. This phenomenon is also apparent in other key states like Ohio, Illinois, and Florida.

In addition to helping candidates who choose to seek out YouTube as a new platform, it also is causing headaches for some who would prefer to stay off of the site. One of the most infamous examples is George Allen. He got a lot of heat in the first couple weeks after referring to an African American as "macaca", immediately labeled by many as a racist comment, but news media eventually let him off the hook. That's not the case with YouTube, however. Allen's on-camera comments landed on YouTube from a handful of users, and the video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. As one of the few examples of YouTube-exclusive mudslinging, Allen's opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, has posted the controversial video under his own YouTube account. In the 2008 presidential election, if there's anything close to the infamous Howard Dean "I have a scream" speech, YouTube will be all over it. This transition to online video coverage of elections could change the way it's approached by candidates.

This year will probably be remembered by political analysts as the first year that a major election entered the digital age. Google Earth has integrated an election guide filter for the US map, and politicians really outreaching to the youth have opened up their own MySpace accounts. Also, electronic voting machines will make their debut in dozens of cities across the country.

This is not entirely a new trend. Elections have historically always played an integral part in the acceptance of new technology. President Woodrow Wilson made his first radio appearance in 1919, about a decade after the technology was first introduced to the US. FDR first graced television airwaves in the 1940s, when only a precious few Americans owned a TV, which, according to The Washington Post, was followed by the very first presidential TV campaign ads in 1952. 54 years later, it's about time for another medium to take the spotlight with politics, and for the Internet, with broadband penetration through the roof and online video actually creeping its way to becoming an alternative to TV, the time is now.