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.