Sitting in front of flat-screen monitors, with notepads and binders all around them, a group of 20-something campaign staffers listened intently to a presentation on a crucial element of the 2008 election season: YouTube. What was once a quirky Web site devoted to comical video clips is now worth a weekend retreat on campaign tactics at the Republican National Committee.
“There’s no real secret sauce; good content is good content,” Steve Grove, politics editor at YouTube, told the Republican staffers before him. “Any issue you have with your campaign, just get it online.”
Grove was one of several presenters who spoke at the RNC’s first-ever New Media College last week. The two-day boot camp on online campaigning included presentations from Facebook, Google and Yahoo. The two dozen state party staffers stationed in the RNC’s basement for the Friday and Saturday training studied the science of collecting Facebook friends and the art of tagging YouTube videos.
“We wanted to bring in the leading companies that voters are spending their time on,” said Cyrus Krohn, eCampaign director for the RNC. “We view, as a party, the Internet as critical.”
In the “YouTube generation,” where everyone from college students to desk jockeys to potential voters surfs the Internet, political campaigns need to ramp up their online presence.
“The mentality for change doesn’t exist in political campaigns,” said Richard Kosiniski, vice president of political advertising at Yahoo. “The Internet has an influence on how people make decisions about candidates.”
YouTube, the video-sharing site created in 2005, has thrown itself into the political arena this election cycle. Hosting presidential debates with CNN and dedicating an entire section on its Web site to the White House race, YouTube has made itself a political hot spot.
Grove pointed to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) campaign song contest on YouTube and subsequent video spoof of “The Sopranos” as successful clips that collected well over 1 million hits. It was an effective, albeit “kind of cheesy” move for the candidate that drove traffic — via YouTube — to Clinton’s campaign Web site.
“There’s a lot that Silicon Valley can teach Washington,” said Grove, who has made similar presentations to Democratic and Republican leaders, though never before to a room of campaign staffers.
The workshop’s attendees were mostly young political junkies — the types that banter over Congressional district data like baseball statistics and get a rise out of the latest blog postings. Hailing from battlegrounds such as Arizona and Ohio, GOP-friendly Arkansas and left-leaning Washington state, the group zeroed in on Facebook-friending and Googling as seriously as a recount.
“I’ve done some stuff before, but never this big,” said Chase Dugger, political director of the Arkansas Republican Party. “This will help us reach out to people who haven’t gotten involved yet.”
The mood wasn’t always serious in the RNC’s bunker, though. The group shared laughs over a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video of action star Chuck Norris and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), a spoof lauding Norris’ mighty fists that one of the RNC’s participants declared “my favorite by far.”
But the smirks in the room quickly turned to shudders as Grove brought up the less-amusing 2006 “macaca” clip, featuring footage of then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) taunting an opposition staffer with a racial slur. Allen eventually lost his re-election bid and the video was perhaps the first on YouTube to trigger a political firestorm. In bringing it up, Grove delivered a clear message: Social sites can change the tone — and outcome — of an election.
There are 23 Republican Senators up for re-election this year, compared with 12 Democrats, and another 21 Republican House Members are retiring. Krohn said that to stay competitive, the GOP has to boost its Internet presence.
With a packed house for the first two-day Internet camp, Krohn said the RNC will host more before the election.
“If we say ‘oh, let’s not experiment because it’s not proven,’ we do it at our peril in every two- and four-year cycle,” Krohn said.