The Viral Vote


The election didn't mark a shift just to more Democratic power in Washington but to more democratic, small “d,” power over how the news of Washington is reported and even made.

Internet Broadcasting Corp., which provides news for more than 70 TV-station Websites, reported record traffic on Election Day. In fact, its research says there were 4.8 million page views to the politics sections on sites it serves. That's nearly three times more than in 2004, a presidential-election year. MSNBC also reported extra traffic, as political junkies logged on to get their fixes.

We would argue that there was an even bigger impact of the new media. Call this the first viral-video election.

The rise of social-networking sites and the power of viral videos played on YouTube marked this campaign. We bet they will continue to influence politics and politicians, even when they aren't busy running for office.

In the two closest races, lost by former broadcaster Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana and Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the margin of defeat was only a relative handful of votes. And in each, damaging videos seen on the Web and then given mainstream exposure on television helped change the results.

The videos were produced by a new breed of campaign operative: ones armed with digital video cameras and a mandate to shadow the opposition and keep rolling in case there is any video to be used against them.

The candidates provided ample fodder for local newscasts and social-networking sites. There was Burns nodding off at a hearing; the “naptime” video alone attracted more than 100,000 views. Then there was his comment comparing taxi drivers to terrorists and condescending remarks about his Guatemalan-born yard man. Burns lost by 2,644 votes, which means that only 1,323 people were the difference between Republicans holding onto control of the Senate and losing it.

Likewise, in Virginia, the reigning political wisdom says the deciding factor in George Allen's race was his “macaca” comment captured by a college kid—the person he was aiming the slur at—doing video stalking duty for Allen's opponent.

Before we start writing obits for traditional media, broadcasting and cable news networks remained the place where candidates had to go to be seen and heard to get elected. That meant record campaign spending, much of it on TV advertising, much of it horribly negative. It also meant broadcasters' covering debates and giving up time to candidates.

But it's clear from last week that the election landscape of the future is going to be a combination of the viral and the traditional, each fueling the other.