Behind Macaca: How the Webb Campaign Lit the Fire that Burned George Allen

December 1st, 2006

The George Allen “macaca” video has already become legend in the political world — a captured moment that spread spontaneously around the web and helped sink the campaign of a man who’d been touted as presidential contender.

Or at least that’s the simplified version that’s entered much of the public discussion about the 2006 campaign. But what really happened? At today’s New Organizing Institute/Center for American Progress event, Jim Webb campaign manager Jessica Vanden Berg told a much more nuanced story about how the campaign took their opponent’s mistake and ran with it as far as they could. Macaca didn’t just happen; the Webb people MADE it happen.

S. R. Sidarth took the original footage of Allen taunting him in front of a crowd on August 11, a Friday. By that evening the senior campaign staff had heard the audio over the phone and realized that they had something that could be significant. After they actually saw the video, they knew they had a real gem — not only had Allen made comments with a racial edge, but he’d also bullied the Webb staffer in public.

But how to spread the word? According to Vanden Berg, they chose to post the video on YouTube because it was free (simple enough). But before they tossed it out for the public to see, they’d already pitched the story to a Washington Post reporter, who wrote about it online on Monday. Only after the Post story appeared and the issue had been properly framed did the Webb folks send an email to their supporter list and to friendly bloggers. The fact that the video was on YouTube made it particularly easy to distribute, since bloggers could insert it directly into their pages, but it was the campaign’s promotional work that spread the word. And as the story developed, they constantly worked reporters and bloggers behind the scenes to shape the public discussion. The video had its REALLY significant effects when the mainstream media picked it up and showed it over and over — 400,000 people many have seen it online, but millions saw it on television. Webb’s people also had help from their opponent: Vanden Berg attributed much of the issue’s long shelf life to the Allen campaign’s very poor response — bad damage control killed them.

In the end, Vanden Berg describes the video as significant but not decisive in the campaign. The polls didn’t shift dramatically as a result of the macaca moment, but it did contribute to an overall impression of George Allen as a boor and possibly a racist, and it also opened the door to other stories the portrayed him in a bad light (remember the noose? creepy). It gave the Webb campaign a chance to get Virginians to take a look at him as an alternative and listen to his message — and it marked the beginning of a real shift in momentum in the race.

What lessons can we learn? As anyone who’s tried to do it knows, intentionally creating viral content is extremely hard, but smart campaigns will be prepared to take advantage of potentially viral moments if they stumble upon them. The Webb team saw what they had, published it an accessible and easily spread medium, and then worked very hard to let the world know. I suspect that the results surprised even them.


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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Life of Alan » link&hellip  |  December 15th, 2006 at 12:28 am

    [...] “Behind Macaca: How the Webb Campaign Lit the Fire that Burned George Allen” [e-politics] (tags: Internet_Usage) [...]

  • 2. Nick Anstead » Blog&hellip  |  December 28th, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    [...] Interestingly, Edwards made a pre-announcement announcement using YouTube, posted from an account that bares his name.  This is smart.  And, incidentally, couples up neatly with a very interesting account of how to use YouTube to develop mainstream media interest, offered by Jessica Vanden Berg, one of Mark Warner’s political advisers.  In particular, both Edwards and Warner left time for the viral impact of the video developed before really launching the story on the mainstream media.  However, they remained wholly aware that the real value of the viral aspect of the story was not the number of people who saw the video online, which remained relatively small, but rather in persuading other news organisations that there was a value in covering the story. [...]

  • 3. Together We Can Make a Di&hellip  |  March 25th, 2007 at 11:28 am

    [...] YouTube ad – Vote Different – attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton potraying her as the “Big Sister” (remember “Big Brother” from 1984?) launches a new chapter in 2008 presidential campaigning in the United States of America. The recent demonstration of YouTube’s political impact came to notice during November 2006 elections in the United States. [...]

  • 4. Digital Camera News and R&hellip  |  April 20th, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    [...] Colin Delaney at e.politics described how the Webb campaign used that video to their advantage: [...]

  • 5. Effective Political Video&hellip  |  May 24th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    [...] Similarly, Dan Manatt talked about the potential of video allow campaigns to reach past traditional media filters and speak directly to voters. Though online video technology has been in use for years, he cited three recent moments — Macaca, Saddam Hussein’s hanging and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign announcement — as examples of web video reaching the tipping point in the popular mind. He also mentioned the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign as an unheralded pioneer in political web video. [...]

  • 6. April 23rd class tech &la&hellip  |  June 4th, 2007 at 12:57 am

    [...] [...]

  • 7. Blog Campaigning: 5.1 Blo&hellip  |  June 4th, 2007 at 6:12 am

    [...] However, regardless of what Allen intended to say, the incident resulted in a gigantic public relations disaster for his campaign. The video was put up on the popular video-sharing network YouTube and received massive attention from mainstream media (Delany 2006a). Not long after the news had reached the general public, Allen had his poll lead cut from 20 points to 3 over his resurgent Democratic challenger Webb (Larvatus Prodeo 24 August 2006). Webb eventually won the race with fewer than 9,000 votes out of the 2.37 million ballot casts (Barakat 2006). [...]

  • 8. Blog Campaigning Thesis -&hellip  |  June 10th, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    [...] In regards to how the Webb team strategically used the ‘macaca’ video to target media and bloggers, Vander Berg argues, according to e.politics’ Colin Delany:   [...]

  • 9. e.politics: online advoca&hellip  |  June 22nd, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    [...] the Macaca moment showed in 2006, unflattering content can spread particularly far and fast on the internet, mainly [...]

  • 10. How Candidates Can Use th&hellip  |  October 5th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    [...] The “Macaca moment” gave online video a bad reputation in some political circles after the 2006 election, with campaign professionals horrified at the thought of their clients’ every public mistake ending up as fodder for online hecklers. But YouTube actually turns out to be a good counter to embarrassing content, since a campaign can use its own videos to respond to an offending clip, or at least to push it farther down the list of search results (a tactic sometimes referred to as “flooding the zone”). [...]

  • 11. e.politics: online advoca&hellip  |  July 27th, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    [...] to be out-spent five-to-one, but in this case at least there’s apparently a chance of a self-inflicted Macaca moment. Perhaps he’ll take the opportunity to invent a new [...]

  • 12. e.politics: online advoca&hellip  |  November 2nd, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    [...] the internet/cable TV axis changes everything: a candidate gives a wobbly speech or has a Macaca Moment and we all see it, and fast. Audio, too — remember that Obama’s “clinging to guns [...]

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