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Archive Video in American Presidential Elections

The influence of video in American campaigns in the digital age is profound and complex.  Video is a fundamental element of news organizations’ election coverage.  A candidate’s gaffe or outrageous statement caught live can drive the news cycle for days.  News stories feature video unearthed from the candidates’ past to illustrate their changing positions on issues and to fact-check their statements.  Long-forgotten footage of a candidate behaving badly can become a focal point of campaign coverage.  Video also is a central component of candidates’ strategies.  Campaigns use video to disseminate their message, control the media agenda, assail their opponents, and counter attacks.  In addition, members of the public can move from the sidelines of the campaign to become active participants by producing, posting, and sharing videos.  Video allows voters to experience the campaign trail vicariously, and to feel a greater connection to the political process.

Video offers a relatively cost-effective way for news organizations and campaigns to reach vast numbers of people across formats.  Over the past decade, the number of online video and streaming services has risen and the number of people online has grown.  Statista reports that 78% of U.S. internet users currently watch online video regularly.  While television remains the main source of election news for around 70% of the American electorate, digital videos have become an important resource for voters, especially young people.  According to an April 2016 study by Google and Ipsos Connect, about one quarter of the electorate has relied heavily on digital video to gain information about the candidates and issues in the 2016 campaign.  Almost half of the voters who regularly view election videos are millennials even as a growing number of older people are turning to video.

Videos have become a vital aspect of legacy news organizations’ campaign coverage as well as their documentation of the historical record.

Videos have become a vital aspect of legacy news organizations’ campaign coverage as well as their documentation of the historical record.  The New York Times and the Washington Post have created extensive video archives of the 2016 campaign that are updated daily.  People accessing these election video channels can view the candidates on the stump, witness key events, such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump trading barbs at the Al Smith dinner, see candidates’ supporters and detractors expressing their opinions verbally and physically, and take in interviews with the candidates, their surrogates, and their critics.  The video archives are a gold mine for fact-checkers seeking to hold candidates accountable for their statements.

For candidates, video is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, videos are a powerful weapon in their campaign arsenal.  Skillful campaigns can go on offense, and use videos to promote their candidate’s and party’s interests.  They can positively associate the candidate with a particular constituency or draw parallels to American heroes.  It has become standard campaign practice for candidates to launch their campaigns with a video.  Hillary Clinton’s campaign kick-off video emphasized her years of service using archival footage, established a campaign theme highlighting her commitment to all Americans, and drew a connection to her hero, President Franklin Roosevelt.

Increasingly, however, campaign videos are used against candidates.  The long-standing trend of negative campaign ads has been magnified in the video age.  Campaign videos initially were largely of the “gotcha” variety meant to catch candidates off-guard and document embarrassing or damaging moments.  One of the first instances of the power of negative video in an Internet-era election occurred in 2006, when Republican Senator George Allen was running for reelection in Virginia—an election he was expected to win.  While on the stump in a small rural town, Allen noticed a campaign tracker from the opposing camp filming him.  Allen twice used the term “macaca,” a racial slur, to refer to the young man who was an American citizen of Indian ancestry.  The film was uploaded to a popular video sharing site, was quickly picked up by media organizations, and became a national news story.   Allen’s opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, used the “macaca” video as evidence of Allen’s insensitivity toward ethnic minorities.  Webb also tread onto his Republican opponent’s turf by airing a television ad that used 1985 footage of Ronald Reagan praising Webb at a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, a move that prompted heated criticism Nancy Reagan herself that did little to mitigate the positive effect of the ad for Webb.  Ultimately, Allen lost the election, and his political career was permanently tarnished.

The 2008 presidential contest, dubbed the “YouTube election,” established online videos as a campaign staple.  Election-related videos were viewed online more than one billion times.  Over 50 million viewers spent 14 million hours watching Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s campaign-related videos on YouTube while Republican candidate John McCain’s videos received one third the amount of traffic.

video-election-picture

The prominence of online videos in 2008 was established during the primary season when a controversy over Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s relationship with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was ignited by viral video.  Archival footage of Rev. Wright’s sermons that included provocative statements, most famously “God damn America!” were posted on a popular video sharing site, and subsequently picked up by the mainstream media.  The resultant uproar prompted the Obama campaign to post a 37 minute long video of a speech on race that to this day is considered Obama’s definitive statement on the topic.  The negative tone of videos escalated over the course of the election to the point where YouTube itself became a campaign battleground.

Candidates have learned the hard way that they constantly must be on their guard to avoid being filmed at inopportune times, including by amateur videographers.

Candidates have learned the hard way that they constantly must be on their guard to avoid being filmed at inopportune times, including by amateur videographers.  During the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was secretly filmed at private fundraiser telling wealthy contributors that “47 percent” of the people voting for Barack Obama are dependent upon the government and pay no taxes, and that it was not his job to worry about them because they need to take personal responsibility for their lives.  The video was embedded in a story in the liberal publication, Mother Jones.  The “47 percent” statement video was picked up by the mainstream media, and became a news story that would dog Romney for the remainder of the campaign.  Hillary Clinton fell into the same trap in 2016 when she stated that half of Donald Trump’s supporters fell into a “basket of deplorables,” indicating that they are racist, sexist, and homophobic.  While Clinton attempted to claw back the statement, Trump supporters rallied around the moniker as a badge of honor, even sporting the slogan on tee-shirts and caps.

This blog continues in Part 2

 

Diana Owen

Diana Owen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University in the Communication, Culture, and Technology graduate program of which she is a cofounder. She served as Director of Georgetown’s American Studies Program for a decade. She has published widely in the fields of civic education, political engagement, media and politics, political socialization, and elections and voting behavior. Her current research explores the relationship between civic education and the development of citizenship orientations as well as new media’s role in politics.

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