YouTube politics: A quest for victory or notoriety?

Many political campaign ads now toe the line between actually trying to win an election and simply trying to get famous. Which is which, and which works?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
7 min read
He rode a blazing saddle: Dale Peterson was a YouTube sensation, but it didn't win over the voters. Dale Peterson 2010

For a few days this month, with midterm election season heating up, the Internet's army of bored office drones cast aside their usual YouTube fodder of strangely-behaving cats and all things lip-synced and Auto-Tuned. They turned instead to what may or may not have been a completely serious political campaign ad: fresh-faced Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell took to the airwaves, and to the Web, with a spot that began with the proclamation, "I'm not a witch."

There's a backstory, of course. As an evangelical Christian activist appearing on the 1990s talk show "Politically Incorrect" hosted by Bill Maher, O'Donnell had claimed that she had "dabbled into witchcraft." That clip, along with other vintage O'Donnell television appearances, became viral hits on the Web once the Tea Party-backed candidate had unexpectedly ousted party favorite Mike Castle in the Republican primary. And, in turn, so did O'Donnell's oddball confessional response ad, which merited not only thousands of shares on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but even a "Saturday Night Live" parody. Was it designed for viral success? Absolutely.

A few years ago, a viral Web video involving a politician more than likely involved grainy handheld-camera footage of that politician drunk at a party or making some kind of unspeakable gaffe--and it was one of those that quite likely cost George Allen of Virginia his seat in the Senate. But times have changed a bit. For better or for worse, we live in a world in which reality-show-caliber notoriety can be just as lucrative and influential as actual elected office.

That's changed the way that strategists go about handling a candidate's presence online, with Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds staying active long after a loss on election day. On the video front, not only do they have to think about YouTube in addition to TV, but they're also thinking about a lasting reach and potential fan base that goes far outside a state or congressional district. For many candidates, the strategy is now twofold: one, win election. two, regardless of election's outcome, get famous anyway.

"I think O'Donnell and her people have sort of given up winning this race and are more interested in using the campaign to build her national profile so she can be the more sunshiny version of Palin," political consultant Peter Feld told CNET, suggesting that O'Donnell's team was well aware that the "I'm not a witch" ad wouldn't necessarily earn her any more votes in Delaware. At this point, with O'Donnell a long shot against Democratic opponent Chris Coons, she wants to remain part of the national conversation regardless.

The model to emulate is, of course, that of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, whose spot on John McCain's 2008 presidential ticket failed to get her to Washington and who resigned her gubernatorial post not long after. But Palin has the platform she needs: massive followings on Facebook and Twitter, coveted spots on television news, and lucrative book deals and speaking engagements. But Palin wasn't a household name until she was a national candidate; now, with someone like O'Donnell, state and even local candidates are embarking upon quests to achieve this kind of mainstream fame as political figures who aren't necessarily elected officials.

Broader reach
Andrew Roos, political ads strategist at YouTube, said that he's increasingly seeing candidates turn to the Google-owned video-sharing site to reach beyond their traditional base of constituents and out to supporters who might want to throw them a few dollars even if state or district lines mean that they can't vote for them.

Demon Sheep ad
Possessed politico? A video ad in the Calif. Senate campaign would have you think so. Screen grab of YouTube video/CNET

"Campaigns, I think, are rightly so doing this as an integrated effort. They aren't giving up on TV, they're not giving up on direct mail, and they're not giving up on calling and bothering you during dinner or showing up at your door," Roos told CNET. "In 2004, with Howard Dean and John Kerry, campaigns were focused on using online for direct response. Now it's fully a part of their strategic plans."

It's also cheaper. In Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell is running, airing traditional television ads involves purchasing airtime in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, which is notoriously inefficient because of the fact that O'Donnell's team would also be paying to reach viewers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who can't vote for a Delaware candidate. Over the state line in New Jersey, meanwhile, state candidates have to buy up not only the Philadelphia media market but the New York City market as well--plus local New Jersey stations in between. And with over-the-top ads run on YouTube, interested viewers are watching them on demand; in the age of the DVR, viewers often skip over political ads along with the rest of what's stuffed into commercial breaks.

"Any case where you have two media markets, and with expensive media markets, YouTube is going to make a lot more sense," said John Brougher, a Democratic campaign strategist with the Washington, D.C.-based Salsa Labs. "You have to do a lot of traditional media outreach, but with the absurdly high price of buying in those markets, it just makes sense to go with YouTube sometimes."

That's what Fred Davis, who runs the Hollywood-based political consultancy Strategic Perception--responsible for creating the "witch ad" for O'Donnell--was aiming for with one of the year's biggest YouTube political sensations. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard exec running for Senate in California, had a last-minute primary challenger who threatened to siphon crucial votes. Instead of running a TV ad, Davis spearheaded the creation of a trippy YouTube ad that featured an actor crawling around in a field wearing a crude sheep costume with red glowing eyes. "Demon Sheep" became an overnight sensation--much of it ridicule.

"California costs several million bucks to run one ad, but for a tiny little nothing amount of money, if we could come up with something that caught people's attention they might look at it because it's unique, they might look at it because it's stupid, they might look at it for a whole variety of reasons," Davis told CNET.

But consultants on both ends of the political spectrum warn that "a YouTube strategy" doesn't guarantee political victory. Just look at Dale Peterson, the guy with the horse and the gun.

"You have to do a lot of traditional media outreach, but with the absurdly high price of buying in those markets, it just makes sense to go with YouTube sometimes."
--John Brougher, campaign strategist, Salsa Labs

A campaign video created for Peterson, a Republican primary candidate for the relatively niche position of Alabama agricultural commissioner, became a million-plus-hit sensation on YouTube and was anointed by Time magazine as "the best campaign ad ever." Accompanied by a horse, a rifle, and a soundtrack worthy of "Blazing Saddles," Peterson used the video to forcefully assail his opponents for relatively trivial campaign hijinks like stealing yard signs and fibbing on Facebook pages. Despite the fact that the ridiculous nature of the video made him briefly the most popular politician on YouTube, it didn't help his standing with his constituents: Peterson lost the primary.

Beyond votes
Peter Feld said that a wildly popular social-media ad campaign just doesn't always correlate to votes. "Some ads might go viral--and be designed to go viral, as I bet this one was," he said in reference to the "witch ad." "Better for reaching a national audience, your base, and political influencers such as journalists. Good for raising money and your national profile. Not as good for reaching undecided voters in your state who don't seek political content online."

Peterson updates his Facebook page daily. He might not be the next Sarah Palin or Christine O'Donnell, but a look at his Facebook status updates do show that, improbably, he has supporters who saw that ad and took it seriously rather than laughing to the point of tears. But if he wants to make another bid for office, he'll need a different kind of weaponry than that rifle.

"My guess is Dale Peterson didn't have anything but a pickup truck and a good ad," said Fred Davis. "I thought the ad was great, and my guess is that the rest of the campaign was nonexistent. For anybody to think you can run an ad and win without a backup, you're whistling Dixie. That doesn't happen."

Davis brought up the example of one of Strategic Perception's clients, Rick Snyder, a former Gateway executive now running for governor of Michigan--and polling ahead of his rival. Snyder achieved modest but not O'Donnell-caliber Internet fame with his "One Tough Nerd" TV advertisement, but Davis said that's not the point. "All that is is the kick-start," he told CNET. "You have to have the rest. Rick Snyder had a great campaign, a great campaign team, one of the best general consultants in the country. He had the meat behind it; all we were able to do is get the focus and the energy guided in the right direction."

Andrew Baron, founder of pioneering Web video series Rocketboom and viral video ranking site Magma, agreed that the drive for notoriety has to be the layer on top of a strong, more traditional political strategy. "With the growing comfort of online transactions, and more comfort with participating in online chatter, I expect people are going to get more riled up than ever before, and that many people will regularly get so hot on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, they will be dropping donations on their party left and right," said Baron, who is the son of the late Democratic fundraiser Fred Baron, admitting that "unfortunately, money does win" in big-ticket elections.

"The party with the most money will then be able to spend the most on traditional, proven means of getting their message out in the right way to the right constituents, the ones who actually do vote," Baron said.