The Election Year That Was...On YouTube


If there isn’t a photo of former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) hanging somewhere in the offices of YouTube, there ought to be. After all, it was Allen whose use of the racial epithet “macaca” was caught on a video that simultaneously torpedoed his 2006 re-election bid and marked “the birth of YouTube politics”—as Steve Grove, head of news and politics for the video-sharing site, described it in an interview with B&C last June.

And if YouTube was just an ingénue back in the 2006 election, the 2008 presidential campaign saw the Google-owned company become a full-fledged political player.

Not only did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announce their candidacies in Web videos that circulated widely via YouTube, the company jumped into the mainstream by partnering with CNN for the primary debates. With viewers encouraged to submit video questions for the candidates, the debates not only attracted a younger audience—the Democratic debate drew 10% more viewers in the 18-34 demo than previous cable-news debates—they made for some memorable TV moments, such as when an animated snowman asked how each would tackle global warming.

For Election Day, YouTube has partnered with PBS to distribute 1,000 video cameras to non-partisan nonprofits and local PBS stations to document polling-place activity and bear witness to any voting shenanigans.

Still, while such ventures show YouTube’s evolution as a media organization, it’s the site’s fundamental mission of enabling users to share videos—not to mention foster their DIY spirit and penchant for pranks—that made it such a force in the 2008 election.

There may not have been any decisive macaca moments that brought down a campaign, but the leading candidates all had to contend with contagious outbreaks of embarrassing video footage on YouTube.

You can bet Sen. John McCain probably wished he hadn’t been caught on video singing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” And at one point, the Democratic primary appeared to hinge on whether voters were more troubled by videos of Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, shouting “God, damn America!” from the pulpit or by CBS News footage of Clinton’s 1996 visit to Bosnia that contradicted her repeated accounts of dodging sniper fire. (A hilariously doctored version of the clip, with whizzing bullets, fiery explosions and severed heads, popped up on YouTube soon after.)

Even Bill Clinton was haunted by remarks on YouTube, leading NBC News political director Chuck Todd to declare the onetime spinmeister-in-chief “woefully unprepared for 21st-century media.”

True to its beginnings, YouTube also showcased user-generated campaign ads, largely from Obama supporters. A spoof of Apple’s iconic Super Bowl spot, casting Hillary Clinton as a mind-controlling Big Brother, helped cement perceptions of her as the establishment candidate. At the very least, the endorsement of Obama Girl accentuated the candidate’s youthful appeal. And admit it: You were glad to see the “Wassup!” boys again.

The campaigns eventually got in on the act, using YouTube to float ads in hopes of catching a wave, as when the McCain camp mocked the media’s perceived “Obama Love” by setting clips of fawning pundits to the tune of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Indeed, both campaigns’ use of network news footage ran afoul of YouTube’s sensitivity to copyright infringement, leading the site to yank the clips.

Of course, the importance of Web video in the election wasn’t confined to YouTube. Humor site gave us Paris Hilton’s candidacy and Ron Howard’s Opie Taylor/Richie Cunningham endorsement of Obama. A Daily Show bit on Sarah Palin and the gender card became the most-watched clip in Comedy Central’s history. And far more people watched Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation on and than on NBC.

To see a gallery of memorable election-year moments on Web video, click here. And to suggest other moments we missed, please scroll down to leave a comment.

With Richard Bellamy