January 14, 2008

Fluidity in the "YouTube Campaign"

More than any presidential race that I can recall, this one reveals voters who are uncertain about whom they will ultimately support. Look at any of the more detailed polls, and you find that half or more of any candidate's support is "soft." So many people have not really made their minds yet, that relatively small events may have a big impact on the final result. Hillary's tearing up is only one example of what we can expect will be a series of signature moments when the electorate gets a new perception of a candidate. One such moment, showed an older woman ask McCain, "How do we stop the bitch?" She can only be referring to Clinton, and the entire (Republican) room erupts into laughter, McCain included. He never directly answers the question, but his facial expression reveals some sympathy for the query combined with the realization that he had best treat the incident as humorously as possible. But the question and the crowd response speak volumes about the Republicans.

Another moment, concerning Romney, also was caught on camera and made available on YouTube. In this short sequence, Romney approaches a young man in a wheelchair. No doubt the candidate is expecting to score some points by displaying compassion. But the encounter goes badly for Romney. As the camera rolls, he learns that the young man suffers from an incurable condition, and that the only thing that can ease his pain is marijuana. Romney is against drugs of all forms being legalized under any circumstances, and immediately points out that there is a synthetic form of marijuana available as a pill. This he supports, if prescribed by a physician. But the young man says that the such pills make him ill, and that only smoking marijuana works for him. Romney begins to back away, as the young man asks whether, if elected, Romney would put him in jail for smoking it. Romney does not hesitate to say that he does not endorse such use, turns his back on the man and begins to look for a more congenial conversation. But whoever is holding the camera stops him, and asks if he is literally going to turn his back on the young man. Will he not speak with him? Romney curtly replies that he has already spoken to him and given him an answer.

The whole episode takes less time to see than it does to describe. It makes me dislike Romney who appears slick, self-assured, insensitive, rigid, cold, and "deeply superficial" - by which I mean superficial all the way down, through and through. Now conceivably this was not a characteristic moment. Maybe Romney normally is a really nice guy. But the footage seemed to me a confirmation of what I have sensed about the man all along.

Such YouTube coverage may become a crucial element in this campaign, helping the public to get beyond the spin and the crafted TV commercials. I certainly hope so. But we will also have to be wary of assuming that YouTube videos are themselves completely unvarnished slices of reality. They can be manipulated and edited, too.

The important point is that in 2008 we are experiencing the conjunction of two events that might not have coincided. The first is the wide open race on both sides, with no heir apparent in either party. This basically has not happened in the memory of the electorate. The second is the advent of YouTube, which is so new that it did not play a role in any previous campaign. As we move through the rest of the primaries, look for more of these moments digitally captured and rebroadcast via the Internet. We seem to be witnessing the birth of a major force in the electoral process. Just as radio became important in the 1930s and television in the 1950s, reshaping the political landscape in the process, the Internet may provide a new kind of electoral battleground. In this new form of public space, the ordinary person has more opportunities to be heard, via Blogs and digital imagery. This makes possible new forms of negative advertising, and new kinds of "reality TV" straight from the campaign trail.

Perhaps that is why Barack Obama has visited the Google headquarters at least twice. He can see that the politics of the future will be more interactive and less from the top down. During his second visit Obama gave a rousing address to a standing-room-only crowd, in which he showed himself quite savvy on the issues that concerned such entrepreneurs. Obama's appearance at Google, too, is available on YouTube - which Google owns.

Obama also has a sophisticated on-line fund-raising operation, which has gathered thousands of email addresses from supporters and provided him with infusions of new cash. His homepage is not only well-designed, it generates campaign money for up-coming contests. Obama makes it easy for contributors to match gifts, to provide the names and emails of other likely contributors, and to follow the progress of each mini-fund drive. And contributors have opportunities to chat on-line to one another, too.

Overall, both Obama and Clinton appear more computer literate than either McCain or Huckabee. That ought to position them well to operate in the new world of Internet campaigns, with its unscripted (or semi-scripted) moments on YouTube. This may be crucial in reaching the still undecided electorate. Stay tuned.