In Obama-McCain Race, YouTube Became a Serious Battleground for Presidential Politics

Online videos related to the election were viewed more than a billion times.

Interactive: Obama Transition 2009

A key turning point in the long and brutal presidential election involved a YouTube battle between dueling online videos.

It was primary season and Barack Obama was being battered in the press because of his relationship with controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Some of Wright's more inflammatory sermons were captured on video and were flying around YouTube.

Instead of letting the clips fester online, the Obama campaign immediately posted on YouTube the candidate's full rebuttal, a 37-minute-long speech on race he delivered to an audience in Philadelphia.

The video clip helped calm the controversy and attracted around 5.3 million views on the video-viewing website, proving the popularity and impact of a medium that was first used widely this election cycle.

Dubbed early on "the YouTube election" by some, by late October, 39 percent of voters had watched some sort of campaign-related video online, according to the Pew Research Center, up from the 24 percent who said in December, before the primaries began, that they had watched political videos. "I think it's fair to say that this is the first election YouTube has played a critical role in helping the president-elect to reach audiences and get people out to vote, says Steve Grove, YouTube's head of news and politics.

YouTube videos, which weren't around during the last presidential election, first made their mark in 2006, when George Allen's infamous "macaca" moment was filmed and uploaded to the Web, derailing his Senate re-election campaign in Virginia.

Most of the early YouTube incidents involved "gotcha" type videos, not serious political messaging. That soon changed as more Americans embraced the medium, along with candidates themselves. "I think a lot of candidates said 'Whoa, this is kind of scary, frankly, and maybe a little bit dangerous,' and 'How are we going to deal with this situation?' But then fast forward just a few months later and 7 out of 16 presidential candidates actually announced their candidacy on YouTube through videos," says Grove.

By Election Day, 28 percent of voters surveyed said they had watched speeches the candidates had put online, like Obama's race speech. "Even though it's 37 minutes long, it's the most-viewed video ever uploaded by a presidential candidate to YouTube," says Grove. "[The Obama campaign] understood that YouTube's not just about short clips, or commercials, or "gotcha" footage, or a slick ad. It's about making yourself available to people."

Of course, YouTube was about much more than official campaign videos. While YouTube logged about 200 million views of official candidate videos, there were as many as 1 billion views of videos created by average Americans and groups not associated with the campaigns, according to the website TechPresident. "So YouTube has become the town square for America's future," says Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of TechPresident, a website that covered the intersection of the election and the Web.

The most popular of the noncampaign affiliated videos seems to be "Dear Mr. Obama," a video created by a McCain-supporting Iraq War vet who delivers a message to the Democratic candidate: "Dear Mr. Obama, having spent 12 months in Iraq theater, I can promise you this is not a mistake." This video received about 13 million views.

There were other more professional-looking videos that became hits too. One is "I Got a Crush...on Obama" that turned the sultry Obama Girl into an online and offline pseudo-celebrity. And then there was Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can" music video that featured a handful of actors and musicians singing and rapping to an Obama speech, which received about 12.7 million views. "The 'Yes We Can' video captured the culture of the Internet's interest in Obama at the beginning of the primary season," explains Rasiej. "It was the perfect melding of Obama's political message with a desire for more engagement by the American public manifested in a simple video instantly viewed by millions without any influence by the mainstream media and the political parties themselves." The video proved to be so popular online that it was adopted by the Obama campaign to be played at campaign rallies.