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The YouTube election

The Obama campaign is taking its message directly to the Internet's huge audience.

By Beth Kowitt
July 18, 2008: 12:05 PM EDT

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Arun Chaudhary and his cameramen were just one crew of many capturing Sen. Barack Obama address a ballroom full of fundraisers last week at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. If not for their setup on a platform in front of the media, Chaudhary and his team could have been just another news outlet.

But instead of ending up on the morning broadcast, the crew's footage streamed live through the Obama Web site using the platform Ustream.tv. Later that night, it was posted on YouTube where the video has so far amassed more than 23,600 views.

"It's like adding seats to the room," Chaudhary says.

The 32-year-old filmmaker and film professor at New York University took a pay cut to spend a leave of absence as the Obama campaign's director of field production, but his viewers have grown exponentially. The video team, which follows Obama on the campaign trail and has a group at headquarters putting together polished clips, has posted more than 1,150 videos on YouTube. The typical video averages about 10,000 to 12, 000 views on YouTube, but some have hit the million mark, as was the case for Obama's speech on race, which has tallied more than 4.6 million views.

The team is not only just reaching more people. It is also represents the shift in how campaigns operate and interact with voters.

"The big change is the sheer expansion of Politics 2.0," said Bruce Gronbeck, the director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture. "We have simply never have had the same ability to make and distribute messages, and the equal ability to access them."

Instead of relying on the media to give snippets of Obama's speeches and rallies, the video team posts them unfiltered to give viewers what Obama's new media director Joe Rospars calls "a window into the campaign." Sometimes the team will post videos of an event before it has ended and sometimes even before it starts, showing footage of crowds waiting for a speech to begin.

"It gives people a sense of this journey that Barack is on around the country," Rospars said.

The McCain campaign has not taken up the medium to the same extent -- it has posted only about 220 videos on YouTube. Gronbeck says that's most likely because McCain's core base of supporters is older and consumes more traditional media such as print materials and radio broadcasts.

Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said its video operation does not have any plans to expand, adding that more videos do not necessarily mean more votes.

"This is a good tool for getting out messages, but the election is about bigger things," he said.

Over at the Obama campaign, the video team is currently undergoing an expansion and reorganization. There are always three staffers on the road team, while the headquarters group will continue to put together more composed, longer pieces, similar to the "Women for Obama" video it posted on YouTube in November (about 34,600 views). The road crew will take on an increasingly visible role on the campaign by blogging more regularly.

The video team not only covers events, but also gives the campaign a way to appeal directly to voters and contributors. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, for example, gave a strategy update via video on Monday in which he asked for supporters make donations (about 39,000 views). The video was filmed on a laptop in his office.

Gronbeck thinks that despite all the emphasis on new media, no one knows yet how deeply it will affect political participation. But Chaudhary says this could be a model for how campaigns are run in the future. He thinks there could even be a place for this type of documentation once the campaign is over. Someone in his role within the Obama administration could be useful for forwarding transparency.

"We're just scratching the surface of all this," he said. To top of page