Move Over 'Macaca': In 2010, Campaigns Begin to Control the Web

In the annals of the internet and technology, 2006 will forever be known as the year of "Macaca," when an errant, arguably racist comment from Sen. George Allen was caught on videotape and then spread across the world when it was posted on YouTube. Allen subsequently lost his re-election bid. 

Four years later, technology watchers at Google say the gotcha phase of YouTube politics is over, as politicians are becoming used to the idea that everything they've said has been recorded for future use.

Ramya Raghavan, news and politics manager for YouTube, told me that candidates and campaigns are "taking control of their own destiny," buying up YouTube real estate and creating a steady stream of content. When something bad pops up, campaigns can respond instantly because they've already established a beachhead on YouTube.

Several campaigns have massive YouTube presences, including Carly Fiorina, who has even purchased the top paid advertising position when you Google her name and the video site. That's not to say that gaffes don't get more traffic. Aside from Fiorina's "demon sheep" ad, most of her campaign-produced content gets a fifth of the traffic of videos created by people who oppose her. 

The Republican Governors Association has used its YouTube page quite effectively, building an entire frame around it. When you first click on it, RGA chair and potential presidential candidate Haley Barbour's mellifluous voice is the first thing you hear. One of the RGA's most popular viral videos was a five-minute biography of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

This year, micro-politics -- geotargeted appeals and geotagged voter tracking -- are big.

Michele Bachmann's campaign came up with a way to exploit her opponent's vote in favor of a state sales tax. Bachmann's Internet team purchased advertisements that would pop up on Google searches made by people within a certain radius of Minnesota's state fair. The ads linked to a YouTube video accusing Democrat Tarryl Clark of wanting to raise taxes on the beer and corn dogs they were enjoying at that very moment.

Can campaigns do the same thing for voters standing in line to vote? So long as the cell towers that their phones ping don't happen to be within 100 yards of the polling site, their content can be... and Google says that several campaigns plan to take advantage of this.

Ginny Hunt, a Google official based in Washington, sees three trends in the way that consumers of political information interact with the web giant. They expect to be able to find every bit of information about a candidate "real-time, indexed, and available." The number of statewide campaigns that use Google applications for their campaigns has jumped 800 percent over just 2008, she says. Other popular apps for campaigns include Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets, which the company touts as more scalable and cheaper than off-the-shelf programs that do the same things.

Peter Greenberger, another former politico who manages Google's political ad sales team, noted that campaigns have become competitive over Google search. There's an arms race of sorts over names and concepts, as campaigns are becoming quite aware of what might be known as the "Santorum" effect -- making sure that one's first exposure to a candidate is not tied to a negative image.

Other innovations include YouTube videos that are clickable and take users to a candidate's page, something that the Obama campaign inquired about in 2008 but that the company was not able to code.

Google, of course, is profiting handsomely from the paid use of YouTube and the search wars. Several company officials said they would not discuss how much more money the company was earning this cycle from politics, though they acknowledged it's a lot.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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