January 4, 2008

Obama’s YouTube moment

One of the big questions of the presidential campaign has been when the first YouTube moment–the seemingly superficial event that takes on a campaign-altering life of its own once it’s posted to YouTube or other video sharing sites–of the 2008 elections would surface. Like (I would imagine) a lot of other people, I had been working under the assumption that it would be a gaffe along the lines of George Allen’s “macaca” slip or Howard Dean’s scream in 2004.

Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time for one of the candidates to say something bizarre and/or offensive. However, I think that in the meantime we’ve officially found an early frontrunner for political YouTube moment of the year, and it’s something altogether more substantive–namely, Barack Obama’s Iowa Caucus acceptance speech. What helps this particular event qualify as a YouTube moment? The fact that it was a ridiculously good speech helps–as friend of the project James Fallows notes in his blog, “to watch his statement live was to realize, even as it was happening, that you were seeing a moment of history people were likely to remember and discuss for a very long time.”

While I think that Fallows’ read on the importance of the speech is accurate, it’s likely that relatively few people, outside of the most inveterate political junkies, actually did watch the speech live and in its entirety. And prior to the days of broadband access and easily accessible online video, it’s likely that most voters would never have seen more of the speech than an odd clip here or there on the cable and network news shows. Instead, more than 160,000 people have watched just the official campaign YouTube clip alone in the twelve hours since it was posted, in addition to the tens or hundreds of thousands more who watched from other video or news sites.

Obviously it’s an open question as to whether all of this will have any appreciable impact on the upcoming primaries. But it’s another reminder of how much the internet has changed the political landscape–as recently as two election cycles ago, the full impact of a speech like Obama’s would have been confined to a small group of self-selected political elites. For all the hand wringing in some quarters about the internet’s contribution to electoral politics, that seems like a pretty positive development to me.