Not since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, when TV made its grand entrance into politics, has a medium shown such potential to affect the outcome of a presidential race.
'We can't afford another reckless president,' declares an ad from moveon.org found on YouTube.
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An Ad Age Editorial
Granted, it's unlikely any of the candidates will have such a shining Kennedy-esque moment on YouTube that he or she will run off with the race, but the inverse is certainly possible. As Joe Trippi, head of Trippi & Associates and now in the employ of the John Edwards campaign, put it: "When you look back at 2008, you will also see the candidate who was riding high until the person with the cellphone caught them doing something or saying something and put it up on YouTube."
You could argue that's already happened. It wasn't just George Allen's Senate re-election bid that was derailed when his "macaca" remark was captured on tape and unleashed upon the web. Up until that point, he'd also intended to make a run for the White House.
Since then, campaigns have been trying to get a handle on YouTube, a tool that can be a politician's best friend or worst enemy -- able to showcase opponents' flaws, deliver new mixes of politainment and offer the prospect of pitches longer than 30 seconds.
"It's becoming an important factor," said Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist for John Kerry's presidential race. He said the Allen incident led to a realization that YouTube is "hovering there" waiting for the wrong moment to be captured.
Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said YouTube may make candidates much more careful about what they do and say. "There are no more out-of-town runs to campaign before small groups and try out speeches and make mistakes," he said. "Wherever they go, someone will have a camera on them at all times."
But that didn't stop Sen. Hillary Clinton from using different accents in front of different crowds or Sen. John McCain from singing "Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann."
Aside from the gotcha aspect, such snippets lead to other issues.
Capitalizing on indiscretion
Even if McCain's song was done in jest, it wasn't long before the opposition tried to capitalize on it. MoveOn.org quickly created its own ad from the footage.
"It's had a whole second life online that it wouldn't have had otherwise," said MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser, crediting YouTube.
In Ms. Clinton's case, it shows YouTube could make it harder for candidates to pander to different crowds, promising one thing in one state and something else in another.
And there may be another benefit. According to Jeff Jarvis, associate professor and head of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, "This could actually clean things up; candidates can't be quite as nasty." Mr. Jarvis co-founded the PrezVid blog to track the YouTube campaign.
While candidates might tone it down some, supporters will have free reign.
The ParkRidge47 contingency
According to Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a blog that tracks how campaigns are using technology, it's a game changer. "The fact that anyone with $1,500 of equipment can produce and post content and have it be pushed and distributed by supporters and mainstream-media companies ... changes the landscape for the political consultant, who would normally have complete control."
Consider the reworking of Apple's "1984" spot that to show Ms. Clinton as Big Brother. Before ParkRidge47 revealed his identity as Obama supporter Phil de Vellis, the only thing certain was that the Obama campaign didn't create the ad.
Mr. Rasiej described the change as good for democracy but "frightening" for candidates.
Given that 527 groups found room to attack on TV within the confines of the McCain-Feingold law, it isn't hard to imagine what such entities will be capable of now that they can be anonymous.
YouTube not casting any votes
A YouTube spokesman said aside from the typical policing for copyright infringement, the site isn't giving special attention to politically themed videos.
There is, however, at least one control. Mr. Rasiej pointed out that the "1984" mash-up worked only because it was compelling. "It garnered a wide audience that demanded to see it, which in turn generated mainstream-media interest."
Such pickup might also make it cheaper for the professionals to get their messages out. In the past few election cycles, both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee created "TV" ads that were seen only online. MoveOn's Mr. Pariser said the availability of YouTube also has changed what MoveOn does campaigns on, saying it's now possible to do effective campaigns without spending the $100,000 necessary to mount a cable-TV attack.
But Mr. Devine said campaigns can't use YouTube just for political ads or an "information dump" or a place to run normal advertising.
"It's almost the opposite. ... In paid media, you pay to get your message before eyeballs. If a message [on YouTube] is not interesting, it's like a tree that falls in the forest."
Beyond simple advertising is the possibility of candidates to create a conversation. YouTube is offering a YouChoose channel for candidates and, according to the spokesman, providing insight and advice to candidates who ask for it. He also said YouChoose is "a public service" and isn't being monetized.
Voters, of course, can theoretically speak back.
But there is one other issue. Just last week a bipartisan coalition of bloggers and activists called for the parties to ensure that networks let anyone freely reuse debate footage on the internet. Whatever the parties decide to do, Mr. Jarvis obtained an e-mail from NBC outlining the rules for footage of the debate it hosted April 26. Right near the top were the words: "Internet use is not permitted."
"That's offensive," CUNY's Mr. Jarvis said. Aside from the journalism principles involved, he said, "it's just not going to work."
In an e-mail, an MSNBC spokesman said, "The entire debate is available for all to view and link to on MSNBC.com."