The YouTube Election
AUGUST, usually the sleepiest month in politics, has suddenly become raucous, thanks in part to YouTube, the vast videosharing Web site.
Last week, Senator George Allen, the Virginia Republican, was caught on tape at a campaign event twice calling a college student of Indian descent a “macaca,” an obscure racial slur.
The student, working for the opposing campaign, taped the comments, and the video quickly appeared on YouTube, where it rocketed to the top of the site’s most-viewed list. It then bounced from the Web to the front page of The Washington Post to cable and network television news shows. Despite two public apologies by Senator Allen, and his aides’ quick explanations for how the strange word tumbled out, political analysts rushed to downgrade Mr. Allen’s stock as a leading contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
YouTube’s bite also hurt Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who was defeated by the political upstart Ned Lamont in Connecticut’s Democratic primary earlier this month. In that contest, pro-Lamont bloggers frequently posted flattering interviews with their candidate on YouTube and unflattering video of Senator Lieberman. The Lamont campaign even hired a staffer, Tim Tagaris, to coordinate the activities of the bloggers and video bloggers.
In the real world, of course, neither Senator Lieberman nor Senator Allen is finished. Senator Lieberman, running as an independent, leads in recent polls. And Senator Allen, who said that he had meant no insult and that he did not know what macaca meant, is favored to win re-election against his Democratic opponent, James Webb. But the experience serves as a warning to politicians: Beware, the next stupid thing you say may be on YouTube.
When politicians say inappropriate things, many voters will want to know. Now they can see it for themselves on the Web.
But YouTube may be changing the political process in more profound ways, for good and perhaps not for the better, according to strategists in both parties. If campaigns resemble reality television, where any moment of a candidate’s life can be captured on film and posted on the Web, will the last shreds of authenticity be stripped from our public officials? Will candidates be pushed further into a scripted bubble? In short, will YouTube democratize politics, or destroy it?
YouTube didn’t even exist until 2005, but it now attracts some 20 million different visitors a month. In statements to the press, the company has been quick to take credit for radically altering the political ecosystem by opening up elections, allowing lesser known candidates to have a platform.
Some political analysts say that YouTube could force candidates to stop being so artificial, since they know their true personalities will come out anyway. “It will favor a kind of authenticity and directness and honesty that is frankly going to be good,” said Carter Eskew, a media consultant who worked for Senator Lieberman’s primary campaign. “People will say what they really think rather than what they think people want to hear.”
But others see a future where politicians are more vapid and risk averse than ever. Matthew Dowd, a longtime strategist for President Bush who is now a partner in a social networking Internet venture, Hot Soup, looks at the YouTube-ization of politics, and sees the death of spontaneity.
“Politicians can’t experiment with messages,” Mr. Dowd said. “They can’t get voter response. Seventy or 80 years ago, a politician could go give a speech in Des Moines and road-test some ideas and then refine it and then test it again in Milwaukee.”
He sees a future where candidates must be camera-ready before they hit the road, rather than be a work in progress. “What’s happened is that politicians now have to be perfect from Day 1,” he said. “It’s taken some richness out of the political discourse.”
Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not known for her spontaneity, agrees.
“It is a continuation of a trend in which politicians have to assume they are on live TV all the time,” Mr. Wolfson said. “You can’t get away with making an offensive or dumb remark and assume it won’t get out.”
These rules have long applied to White House contenders, but the dynamic is getting stronger and moving down the ballot. “It used to be the kind of thing that was only true for presidents,” Mr. Wolfson said. “Now with the proliferation of technology it is increasingly true for many other politicians.”
But Mr. Wolfson, who recently led an effort by the Clinton camp to reach out to liberal bloggers hostile to his boss, believes that this trend has one advantage. “It does create more accountability and more democratization of information in the process,” he said.
The explosion of instant video may also put pressure on the news media. In the old days, the Allen video would not have been available for all to see. “Imagine this happened 10 years ago,” Mr. Wolfson said. “We had video and trackers then. But you had to get it to a TV station or newspaper. You had to persuade them to run a story on it. This allows you to avoid the middleman.”
And by doing so, avoid an arbiter, however flawed, of standards. “There’s no, ‘Is this the right thing for political discourse?’ ” Mr. Dowd said. “It’s just there.”
These days journalists are concerned not just about being cut out, but about being part of the show. Reporters often suffer the wrath of bloggers in the same way politicians do. At a recent conference of political bloggers in Las Vegas, reporters more than once reminded one another to be discreet in their conversations because anything overheard was fair game for bloggers to post.
Now, as the campaign trail turns into a 24-hour live set, members of the press corps may find themselves starring on YouTube. “At least one big-time journalist will have their career or life ruined because some element of their behavior that was heretofore private will be exposed publicly,” predicted a senior adviser to a potential 2008 presidential candidate. The adviser requested that his name not be used because he did not want his personal views to be taken for his boss’s.
Then again, YouTube’s impact on politics may be exaggerated. For one, the site’s users are generally young and not highly engaged politically.
“Most social networking sites cater to younger audiences, 18 to 24,” says Michael Bassik, vice president of Internet advertising at MSHC Partners, which advises candidates on media strategies. “For the most part, it’s not political conversations taking place there.”
And maybe the Allen video wasn’t all that shocking after all.
Jeff Jarvis, author of the BuzzMachine blog and an Internet consultant to The New York Times Company, doesn’t think all that much has changed.
“Is it news that politicians say stupid things?” he asks. “Of course not.”