The 'YouTube elections': how campaigns are being scrutinised as never before

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The Independent US

Next week's midterm elections may or may not see a radical shift in America's political leadership. But, in campaigning terms, the big change has already happened: the "YouTube election" has arrived.

Every time a candidate has made a gaffe, or made an outrageous television advertisement, or provoked interesting discussion on the cable news shows, or inspired the growing band of television satirists, the results have made their way on to the internet.

When John Kerry erred from his prepared script and appeared to suggest, in a campaign appearance in California on Monday, that people who don't work hard at completing an education end up fighting in Iraq, there was no need for political junkies to wait for the six o'clock news or rely on second-hand reports to find out what the Massachusetts senator had said. They could see it for themselves, at a variety of political websites, and make up their own minds whether Mr Kerry was a tactless elitist snob or merely a tired politician fluffed his lines.

The same was true hours later when President George Bush criticised him, or over the next couple of days when Senator Kerry first insisted that he would apologise to nobody and then, contritely, apologised.

It's not clear how - or if - the outcome of political races is being affected, but the new media technology is bringing an instant warts-and-all quality to the battle for control of Congress. It is not unlike the way photography has changed with the advent of digital cameras. There is no need to wait for material to be processed; it pops right up on the computer screen

Video sites such as YouTube are often the first place that footage of candidates and their campaign adverts appears. Political blog sites such as Crooks and Liars, on the left, or Hugh Hewitt, on the right, then offer their commentary on the footage with a link to the raw material.

When George Allen, the gaffe-prone Republican senator from Virginia fighting to hold on to his seat, used the racial epithet "macaca" to refer to a dark-skinned supporter of his opponent, he didn't have much room to argue about the specifics of the incident because it was on the internet.

Likewise, last week, when his security detail manhandled an internet reporter asking him pointed questions, he couldn't pussyfoot around the degree of violence used because it was a matter of public record.

One thing "YouTube politics" has done is to expose local races to an unprecedented degree of national scrutiny. When the Republicans put out a now- notorious advert in Tennessee suggesting that the black Democratic candidate for Senate, Harold Ford, was consorting with Playboy bunnies, the 60-second spot was watched all over the country and its crude appeal to racial prejudice - the notion of a black man and a white woman having sexual contact, which was not so long ago taboo in Southern states - became a matter of national embarrassment.