On the Electronic Campaign Trail

By Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 22, 2007

By noon on Jan. 10, Matt Rhoades and Kevin Madden knew they had a problem.

The two men handle communications for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential exploratory committee and had been told about a video flying around the Internet that spliced clips from Romney's 1994 debate with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). In it, Romney (R), then running for the Senate in a losing campaign against Kennedy, voiced support for abortion rights and gay rights -- positions he has since renounced.

Romney's political inner circle, alerted to the threat, decided to strike back quickly. Less than eight hours after the attack appeared, a video of Romney rebutting the charges was being sent to his supporters and to Republican blogs.

"In a viral information age, a distortion of the record can quickly sink in as fact," Madden said. "It was very important to show that what was an anonymous attack eventually became a moment of strength for our campaign."

Not long ago, an anonymous video on the Internet would have elicited little more than amusement from the candidate under attack. But the 2006 midterm campaign -- in which then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) saw his hopes for reelection, not to mention the White House, torpedoed by his now-infamous "macaca" moment captured on a widely seen video -- changed the rules.

But if last year was the year of the rogue videographers, the already-underway 2008 presidential campaign is likely to be remembered as the point where Web video became central to the communications strategy of every serious presidential candidate.

Playing defense is only one use of Web video. Equally important, the candidates and their staffs see Web-based video as an inexpensive and potentially significant tool for telling their campaign story without the filters of the traditional media.

Call it the YouTube effect, and it is only growing. The video-sharing site, which less than a year after its founding was bought by Google for $1.65 billion, has revolutionized the transfer of information via video, spawned a number of imitators and forced candidates to recalibrate choices, from their announcement strategies to their staffing decisions.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), for example, is to participate in three live online chats starting tonight -- a rapid-fire follow-up to the announcement of her presidential ambitions via video Saturday. The campaign will solicit questions in advance, and Clinton will respond on her Web site.

Peter Dao, the campaign's Internet strategist, who worked on the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said Clinton's team hopes to make her campaign as interactive as possible and said the opportunities today are far advanced over just a few years ago.

"I remember in 2003 and 2004 when you said 'blog,' most people didn't know what you meant or the significance of it," Dao said, adding that with the growth of blogs and social networking sites, "the ubiquity of it is so amazing . . . the sky's the limit."

To be sure, the political establishment remains slightly behind the technological curve -- innovative video work for presidential campaigns is more likely to be done by 20-somethings than by more established media consultants -- but the times are clearly changing.

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