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Web changing campaigns

The video blasted across the Internet, drawing political blood from Sen. John McCain within a matter of days.

Produced here in a cluttered former motel, it juxtaposed harsh statements about Islam made by the Rev. Rod Parsley with statements from McCain praising Parsley, a conservative evangelical leader. The montage won notice on network newscasts this spring and ultimately helped lead McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, to reject Parsley's earlier endorsement.

In previous elections, an attack like that would have come from party operatives, campaign researchers or the professional political hit men who orbit around them.

But this year, the most attention-grabbing attacks are increasingly coming from people outside the political world. In some cases they are amateurs operating with a computer and a YouTube account, in other cases sophisticated media types with more elaborate resources but no campaign experience.

So it was with the Parsley video, which was the work of a 64-year-old film director, Robert Greenwald, and his small band of 20-something assistants. Once best known for films like “Xanadu” and the TV movie “The Burning Bed,” Greenwald shows how technology has dispersed the power to shape campaign narratives, potentially upending the way American presidential campaigns are fought.

“If you had told me we would have hit 1 million, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Greenwald, who said he had no ties to the Democratic Party or Sen. Barack Obama's campaign.

Four years ago, the Internet was a Wild West that caused the occasional headache for the campaigns but for the most part remained segregated from them..

This year, the development of cheap new editing programs and fast video distribution through sites like YouTube has broken down the barriers, empowering a new generation of largely unregulated political warriors who can affect the campaign dialogue faster and with more impact than the traditional opposition research shops.

Already there are signs that these less formal and more individual efforts are filling a vacuum created by a decline in activity among the independent advocacy groups – so-called 527s and similar operations – that have played a large role in negative politics in the last several election cycles. Especially on the conservative side, independent groups have reported trouble raising money, and some of the biggest players from 2004 have signaled that they will sit it out this time around.

The change has added to the frenetic pace of this year's campaign. “It's politics at the speed of Internet,” said Dan Carol, a strategist for Obama who was one of the young bulls on Bill Clinton's vaunted rapid response team in 1992. “There's just a lot of people who at a very low cost can do this stuff and don't need a memo from H.Q.”

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