WASHINGTON (AFP) — When John McCain's bid for the Republican presidential nomination was in the doldrums last year -- short on cash and with top aides jumping ship -- his campaign strategists turned to YouTube.
"The McCain campaign was imploding," recalled Julie Germany, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
"They decided the more strategic investment in battleground states in the primaries would be to put videos up on YouTube with high-production values," Germany told AFP.
"They realized that by the end of the day they would be all over television news and network news and cable news and people would be talking about them on the political talk shows," she said. "And they were right."
The political advertisements posted on the free video-sharing site have been credited by Germany and other analysts with helping McCain revive his fortunes and stage an improbable comeback victory in the crucial New Hampshire primary.
McCain went on to capture his party's nomination and build a warchest for his November 4 presidential election bid, but his campaign has continued to make canny use of YouTube in the battle for the White House.
"They duplicated their efforts this August with attack ads against Barack Obama," Germany said.
"The campaigns are putting video out on the Web knowing full well that their supporters will distribute it for them," said Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of techpresident.com, a blog which explores how technology is changing politics.
"There's an entirely new political media ecology that's been formed because of this platform we call YouTube," he said.
Some of McCain's hardest-hitting video ads such as "Celeb" or "The One," in which Obama is depicted as an over-hyped media creation, never appeared on broadcast television, only on YouTube as so-called "ghost videos."
But, as intended by the McCain campaign, they took on a life of their own, being picked up by television networks, sent around as links on the Internet and written about by bloggers and mainstream print media.
The costs of producing the Web-only videos were a fraction of the costs of a traditional television or radio advertising buy.
YouTube has not only been used as a vehicle for free campaign advertising, it's also allowed the candidates to get their message directly to the public.
"The thing about video online, but text as well, is that candidates now have new ways of talking to voters," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project at the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
"Candidates still depend to a tremendous amount on traditional media carrying their message but they are now increasingly taking advantage of these other opportunities to bypass the media and speak directly to voters," he said.
Steve Grove, YouTube's news and political director, writing in a recent issue of Harvard University's Nieman Reports, described the Google-owned site as "the world's largest town hall for political discussion."
YouTube, in a partnership with CNN, also sponsored two debates during the presidential primaries with the novel format of having questions submitted in videos made by viewers.
Some 5,000 videos, from the straightforward to the strange, were sent in to YouTube for the Republican debate and some 3,000 for the Democratic showdown including one featuring a talking snowman worried about climate change.
The site, which uploads 13 hours of video a minute according to co-founder Chad Hurley, has also become a leading vehicle for political satire, featuring everything from homemade parodies to slick professional productions.
"This a culture that invented the political cartoon and now with these digital technologies there are new ways to play around with stuff and have some fun with it," said the Pew's Rainie.
One thing the presidential campaign hasn't seen -- so far at least, notes Germany -- is a "YouTube moment," an embarrassing gaffe or blunder by one of the candidates that ends up on YouTube.
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