With the American election season in its final weeks, candidates are scrambling for any advantage to help them win at the polls on November seventh. This year more politicians than ever before are relying on the Internet to connect with voters, promote their platform and of course, attack their opponents. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports on one of the most famous new tactics of the campaign season -- publishing homemade political videos on the Internet.
George Allen is a Republican senator from Virginia running for re-election. Some observers thought the six-year Senate veteran would not only easily win re-election, but might also run for president in 2008. That was before his political opponent submitted a grainy video of Allen to the YouTube Web site. There, hundreds of thousands of viewers watched him use an obscure racist slur to describe a cameraman working for his opponent.
"So welcome, let's give a welcome to, let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
Senator Allen called Indian-American S.R. Sidarth "macaca," which in some places means "monkey." After just a few days, the video dramatically changed the Virginia Senate race as the news media reported on the controversy.
Allen spent weeks apologizing and denying that he is racist, but the incident shook his re-election campaign and altered the Virginia Senate race.
S.R. Sidarth says, "I was humiliated." Sidarth is a new kind of political campaign worker, called a "tracker," who follows candidates with a video camera, waiting for an embarrassing gaffe that can be turned into political gain.
Tracker videos are published on Web sites such as "YouTube," which did not exist during the last election season in 2004, but it now broadcasts about 70 million video clips each day.
This election season, political advertisements on television remain the single most powerful method campaigns use to influence voters' opinions.
But political strategists see the Internet as an increasingly valuable campaign tool. A recent forum at George Washington University in Washington gave campaign consultants the opportunity to hear advice from Internet entrepreneurs such as gather-dot-com founder Tom Gerace.
"There's a fundamental shift that's happening in the media space. And it is as our introductory speaker suggested, a shift away from centrally-created, centrally-controlled, centrally-edited, centrally-organized media; toward user-created, user-controlled, user-organized media."
For politicians, more user-generated content means more trackers like S.R. Sidarth filming their every move. Internet strategist Matthew Zablud says candidates running for office are now in the public spotlight more than ever before. "There's no question I think the Internet has played a role in that. I think that's extremely positive, candidates are going to have to get used to it."
Zablud is vice president of RightClick Strategies. The company advises corporations and political campaigns about using the Internet to communicate with the public.
At its Washington office, young employees in their 20s and early 30s are doing a brisk business designing Web sites for clients, running blogs and administering email groups.
Zablud says candidates are spending more money on Internet communications. But despite the notoriety of tactics like the macaca video, he says the Internet is still only one part of a broader communications strategy.
"The macaca story, it was a big story when it hit online. It was a massive story when the Washington Post went after it. You've got to take these things and look at them and say it's not just the online component that's driving them. "
Zablud says the Internet is now mainly used to raise money and organize supporters, but the technology is aiming at a new milestone. He says that among political strategists, the real test for the Internet is when it will be able to compete with television in winning-over undecided voters.