CHARLESTON, S.C.—Minutes after Democratic presidential candidates debated last week in Charleston, the “spin room” where campaign aides tout their bosses to reporters started to buzz.
Not because of the candidates or campaign strategists streaming in, many of whom held signs overhead to advertise their availability for chatter. Not for the Hollywood types hanging out. Certainly not for the media.
Rather, the buzz was for Amber Lee Ettinger. She’s the swimsuit model who starred in the video, “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama.” That made her a symbol of how much the Internet—particularly videos on it—are changing at least the mechanics of politics this year.
From non-traditional productions like hers—seen nearly 3 million times—to the way politicians such as Mitt Romney learned from the “macaca” moment meltdown last year by former Virginia Sen. George Allen, the world of politics is changing. Explosive growth in the number of videos sent racing `round the world on the Web is opening new ways for people to learn about politicians, and new ways for politicians to communicate with potential voters.
Often, as in the case of Ettinger’s Obama-girl video, productions are outside the control of traditional political-message gatekeepers—the campaigns and mainstream media. Clever, sexy or funny, the videos draw large audiences, but their impact on voting is so far unknowable.
The Obama video could create more fans for Ettinger than for the Democratic senator from Illinois—who had nothing to do with it.
But it also conceivably could plant the suggestion that the married Obama is somehow available to women, which could injure his image.
Other recent videos threatened to underscore negative images of candidates through clever parodies. One featuring a clash between Ettinger and a Rudy Giuliani fan includes references to Giuliani’s multiple divorces, his former marriage to a cousin and the fact that he once dressed in drag as a joke.
Another stars a woman professing a crush on Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, which echoes undocumented tabloid suggestions that she’s a closet lesbian.
Yet another shows former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina combing his hair at length to the tune, “I Feel Pretty,” an apparent attempt to make him look vain, shallow or both.
Edwards felt compelled to respond last week with his own video, which featured the song “Hair” juxtaposed with pictures of war and other issues that he said mattered more.
Campaigns are watching, and learning.
The impact YouTube can have on politics was demonstrated last year when former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., was caught on video calling a dark-skinned videographer “macaca.”
His rival campaign posted the video online and his failure to respond immediately via YouTube meant the video’s impact spread rapidly without any explanation from Allen. He apologized three days later, but even then did not post his own video.
Anytime someone watches a video on YouTube, they then see a list of related videos. A response from the candidate would be posted there, becoming available as rebuttal to any attack video.
Contrast Allen’s cluelessness about YouTube to how former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reacted earlier this year when someone sent YouTube a video of Romney talking about abortion in a 1994 campaign. Romney posted a YouTube response, which was then always linked to the original.
“That was a defining moment,” said Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden. “The old media standard of how to deal with something like macaca was that you only elevate it by responding and hoped it went away. That no longer works.”
“That symbolized why candidates are on there,” said Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for YouTube. “They can’t afford not to be.”
Indeed, Romney’s campaign is vigilant in watching for any mention of its candidate, ready to highlight favorable reports or respond immediately to negative ones.
At Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston, a group of aides produces a daily analysis of content from network television, radio and newspapers, as well as blogs and online videos.
“We get a blog breakdown every day. We know what stories are getting attention. We know how many times and whether video is showing up on it,” Madden said.
They play video offense as well.
Romney has posted 228 videos on YouTube that have been viewed more than 1.4 million times. All presidential candidates in both parties combined have posted 1,200 videos since March, viewed more than 13 million times.
Also, five candidates announced their candidacies online via YouTube: Democrats Clinton, Edwards, Obama and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
On Barack Obama
Obama girl versus Giuliani girl
On Hillary Clinton
On John Edwards
On Mitt Romney