By noon on Jan. 10, Matt Rhoades and Kevin Madden knew they had a problem.
The two men handle communications for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential exploratory committee and had been told about a video flying around the Internet that spliced clips from Romney's 1994 debate with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). In it, Romney (R), then running for the Senate in a losing campaign against Kennedy, voiced support for abortion rights and gay rights -- positions he has since renounced.
Romney's political inner circle, alerted to the threat, decided to strike back quickly. Less than eight hours after the attack appeared, a video of Romney rebutting the charges was being sent to his supporters and to Republican blogs.
"In a viral information age a distortion of the record can quickly sink in as fact," Madden said. "It was very important to show that what was an anonymous attack eventually became a moment of strength for our campaign."
Not long ago, an anonymous video on the Internet would have elicited little more than amusement from the candidate under attack. But the 2006 campaign, in which then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) saw his hopes for reelection, not to mention the White House, torpedoed by his now-infamous "macaca" moment captured on a widely seen video, changed the rules.
But if last year's midterms were the year of the rogue videographers, the already-underway 2008 presidential campaign is likely to be remembered as the point where Web video became central to the communications strategy of every serious presidential candidate.
Playing defense is only one use of Web video. Equally important, the candidates and their staffs see Web-based video as an inexpensive and potentially significant tool for telling their campaign story without the filters of the traditional media.
Call it the YouTube effect, and it is only growing. The video-sharing site, which less than a year after its founding was bought by Google for $1.65 billion, has revolutionized the transfer of information via video, spawned a number of imitators and forced candidates to recalibrate choices, from their announcement strategies to their staffing decisions.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), for example, is to participate in three live online chats starting tonight -- a rapid-fire follow-up to the announcement of her presidential ambitions via video Saturday. The campaign will solicit questions in advance and Clinton will respond on her Web site.
Peter Dao, the campaign's Internet strategist who worked on the 2004 presidential campaign for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said Clinton's team hopes to make her campaign as interactive as possible and said the opportunities today are far advanced over just a few years ago.
"I remember in 2003 and 2004 when you said blog, most people didn't know what you meant or the significance of it," Dao said, adding that with the growth of blogs and social networking sites, "the ubiquity of it is so amazing . . . the sky's the limit."
To be sure, the political establishment remains slightly behind the technological curve -- innovative video work for presidential campaigns is more likely to be done by 20-somethings than more established media consultants -- but the times are clearly changing.
Take former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). The night before he formally announced his presidential candidacy from New Orleans to a battery of cameras from the traditional media, his advisers had posted a 2 1/2 -minute video on YouTube and Rocketboom.com in which the candidate outlined the themes of his campaign. To draw attention to that video, the campaign bought advertising on a variety of political blogs and e-mailed bloggers.
"Our goal was to have people go and watch that video so they could hear directly from John what this campaign was about," said Mathew Gross, chief Internet strategist for the Edwards campaign. "Within the first 48 hours or so, 50,000 people had watched that video. Now it is over 100,000 people who have seen it."
That was hardly the end of it for Edwards. Later that day he held a town hall meeting in Des Moines with more than 1,000 attendees. But the campaign streamed the session live on the Edwards Web site and, according to campaign officials, about 40,000 people tuned in to watch. The campaign used four cameras to cover the meeting, with a director shifting camera angles to increase the production values. "It was very much like live television," Gross said.
Since then, the campaign has edited the session into segments and posted them on YouTube, increasing the potential reach of what would have been a one-time event for a local audience.
Campaigns have added a position to their tables of organization: videographer. Several campaigns have decided to employ a videographer to track the moves -- public and behind the scenes -- of the candidate. "From a positive standpoint, it's providing that kind of backstage access that nobody else except the people on the campaign get to see," said Spencer Whalen, an e-campaign strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) set up his exploratory committee last week, his campaign sent an e-mail to supporters with a link to a video of the candidate describing why he was preparing to run for president -- a relatively inexpensive way to deliver a message, and one that was virtually unthinkable two campaigns ago.
"The evolution of the Internet as a means of organizing has been something that's grown exponentially," said David Axelrod, a media consultant for Obama. "McCain in 2000 spawned a lot of contributions on the Internet. The Howard Dean campaign in 2004 certainly was a quantum leap. As more and more people become wired to the Internet and fluent in it, it becomes a greater and greater tool for organizing the grass roots and the democratization of politics. It's not just a tool for delivering messages to people but a tool for people to deliver messages to you."
And as a means for attack. Other campaigns took note of how Romney responded to the anonymous attack video and said they will be on notice for similar tactics that could be used against them. "If you're able to create a good viral attack ad, not as a campaign but as an individual, that can really get out there and get going," said Gross, the Edwards staffer. "That Romney episode of responding was a very smart move."
But the video record also provides a potential shield. If a rival campaign takes a quote or a incident out of context and uses it as an attack, McCain's team will have the full record to rebut, if needed.
In the 2004 campaign, the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got huge attention for a relatively small media buy for an ad attacking Kerry. In that case, cable news magnified the ad's impact by airing it over and over. Kerry's failure to respond more quickly is now seen as a critical mistake that contributed to his defeat.
Straight to the Web
In this campaign, groups like the Swift boat veterans will not need cable television's assistance. They can go straight to the Web via YouTube and let millions of Americans see ads on their own time. A television commercial paid for by MoveOn.org, a leading progressive advocacy group, attacking McCain for his support for sending more troops to Iraq began running last week in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as on some national cable stations. It was also posted on YouTube and by Friday was one of the most popular videos on the site -- greatly expanding its universe of viewers and its influence on the national conversation.
The accelerated use of campaign video is likely to continue throughout the 2008 campaign as technology opens new opportunities and challenges, with even more significant changes likely by 2012, when Internet Protocol television -- the equivalent of television channels based on the Web -- becomes more technically and financially feasible.
For now, the race is on to exploit today's technology and compete for attention not just against other campaigns but also against other Web sites. "You'll see a technology Internet primary with people trying to do interesting things and move the ball forward," Gross said. "There is so much creativity on the Internet, as a campaign, how do you reach that level of creativity and interest?"