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Online media changes political landscapes

Media analyst Steve Adubato: Campaigns no longer have private moments. Instead, they have YouTube moments. While Sen. Barack Obama has thrived in the online political world, Sen. John McCain has struggled in it.
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While the Democratic race for president continues to carry on, it’s time to consider the prospects of a head-to-head race between 46-year-old Barack Obama and 71-year-old John McCain. Why do I mention their respective ages?  Because age matters… a lot. Obama’s relative youth, which McCain will say contributes to his inexperience and naiveté, will be a big part of the Republican campaign this fall. The Democrats will not only tie McCain to the unpopular President Bush, but they will try to portray him as old and even a bit feeble to handle the rigors of the presidency — without actually mentioning his age.

But age matters for another important reason. Obama’s campaign is, in many ways, the quintessential “YouTube” operation. Obama has raised tens of millions of dollars from the Internet. Over 1.5 million different people have contributed to his campaign online, with many giving 100 dollars or less. A significant percentage of these online supporters are giving to a politician for the first time in their lives.

His early stump speeches were plastered all over cable news programs. Obama has been a boon to TV news programs covering politics. But consider the millions of Americans who have come to know Obama largely from the Internet. Check out the most downloaded political YouTube videos. The Illinois senator dominates that list. Obama’s critically important, early caucus victories were largely the product of excellent organization and a tremendous number of young supporters using e-mail and text messaging to communicate with each other about caucus logistics.

Obama may become not only the first black president, but our first “online” president. But while the Internet loves him, it nearly destroyed Obama’s candidacy as well. Consider the endless stream of video clips that dominated YouTube and other video distributors portraying Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s off-the-wall ranting. Those videos, seen on millions of computers across the country, made the Wright controversy more difficult for Obama to deal with the problem.

As for McCain, the Internet/YouTube environment could be his worst nightmare. Unlike Obama, who always seems cool and well-prepared when he speaks in any public venue, McCain is a shoot-from-the-hip, “straight talk” kind of politician, who often says the first thing that comes to his mind even if it gets him into trouble. McCain is also an awkward communicator who is known to trip over his words, and make dumb, seemingly ill-informed statements on the campaign trail.

Consider McCain’s off-the-cuff comments about U.S. troops having to be in Iraq for up to 100 years. Remember, it wasn’t a traditional journalist who asked McCain about the U.S. troops in Iraq. It didn’t happen on or “Face the Nation.”  It was in response to a question by a citizen. McCain gave a knee-jerk reaction, saying it could take up to 100 years to get the job done in Iraq. An amateur photographer happened to catch McCain’s statement on tape. The video was immediately downloaded by thousands of curious voters, and used and replayed countless times on cable news programs. McCain has since tried to clarify his comments, and now says he can end the war by the end of his first term.  But it’s too late.  The damage is done. Expect McCain’s 100-year comments to be used over and over in Obama TV ads this fall.

No more private moments
The Internet has the potential to prop up or destroy a presidential campaign. There are virtually no private moments anymore in American politics. It’s all fodder for YouTube. The potential for “gotcha tactics” is greater than ever, so get used to it. The 2008 pesidential campaign will be historical on many levels, yet one of the most significant will be that the Internet will play a dominate role in deciding the outcome of this race. 

YouTube is only a part of it. Facebook and MySpace will sponsor more and more major political debates in the future. The power of Google will continue to be a critical tool for voters wanting to do their own research on the candidates and bypass mainstream media. More money will be raised online by politicians like Obama and the candidates who are either too old or too unaware to understand and appreciate the power of this exploding media platform will be left in the dust.

Like it or not, the American media landscape has changed forever. Is that good or bad?  It’s both.  Either way you chose to look at the exploding online world, the way we elect our presidents will never be the same again.

is an MSNBC analyst focusing on national politics and media issues.  Write to Steve Adubato at