Video from the Presidential Campaign, Republican Division

My fall class at ITP has been tracking the creation and distribution of video produced by people other than political professionals, and I wanted to share some of the things they found here. The story of 'Obama <3s teh internet <3s Obama' has been told many times; less well appreciated is the effective Republican/Conservative use of video.

There is a certain (inevitable/dangerous) triumphalism in the Democratic win, because losers always take better lessons from the battlefield than winners. (It's hard to remember now, but before the 2004 election, much the political conversation was around describing the dominance of the warbloggers.)

Looking at Republican uses of video that my students analyzed was quite instructive in this light, because a) those strategies weren't just weak mirrors of the Democratic camp, they were strong but different ones and b) these strategies are going to become much stronger in 2010 and then again in 2012. I'll point to a few of these examples while I'm guest blogging.

First up, and my vote for the single most affecting video of the election, is Dear Mr. Obama, above. I am an anti-Iraq-war Democrat, and it nevertheless brought tears to my eyes (and I don't cry easy —'s Yes We Can left me fairly cold.) Watch it all the way through, or, if you can't, skip to the end before you close it.

This is a video made by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Stuff like the American flag draped just in frame looks hokey to the godless/ sodomite/ baby-killing wing of the Democratic party (my people), but is part of a "plain speaking and right thinking" package that clearly hit just right with the target audience. It was seen 13 million times in 3 months, which topped Obama Girl in absolute views, and I've got a Crush…on Obama was up a year and a half.

This is why this video is really really important: the simple message and Blair Witch production values (good enough to be effective, bad enough to seem unplanned) made this video like Democratic kryptonite. The video was largely circulated via homophilous forwarding along conservative channels. Despite the incredible viewership, I'm betting that the ratio of BoingBoing readers who have seen Obama Girl to those who've seen Dear Mr. Obama is at least 10:1. (When my students presented it to ~100 NYU students on election eve, something like 3 of them had seen it.)

The lovely non-partisan view of voting — make your case to everyone, see what happens on election day — masks the fact that there are really three different voter games being played in elections. The first is 'Mobilize the base' — at ~50% voter participation, there's a lot of juice in just being able to get people who want you to win out to actually get to the polls. The second game is 'Swing the undecided.' There is, to a first approximation, no such thing as an 'independent' voter. People who don't make up their minds until late in an election are less political, less involved in the issues, and less likely to vote overall than partisans, so their minds have to be changed with something emotionally engaging. And the third game is 'Depress the turnout of your opponent' or, at the very least, to avoid enraging them to the point that they are willing to do something rash, like vote.

And in that regard, Dear Mr. Obama was a trifecta. For the base, a muscular but polite attack on the very issue that brought Obama into the spotlight. For the undecided, the emotional charge is much likelier to sway them than argumentation. And for the Dems — nothing. The video might as well not have existed for all it was seen in Democratic circles. Since the video's sole speaker can't be criticized without making the criticizer look churlish at best, almost no Dems forwarded it, linked to it, talked about it.

For most of the life of the Republic, it was not just possible but imperative to say different things in different places — what politician would tell auto workers and orange pickers the same thing! That old world had a stake driven through its heart by the Macaca Moment; every politician knows that anything they say to anyone, they say to everyone everywhere.

Now, the job of saying one thing to one group, and something different to another, falls to the supporters. The social solidarity of weblogs and mailing lists replaces the old world of media buys and Chamber of Commerce speeches, recreating through the echo chamber what was once the province of geography and cost. Dear Mr. Obama was music to Republican ears while being inert in Democratic hands; expect it to be a template for 2010.