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How important is YouTube in the upcoming Presidential Elections?

The revolution may not be televised, but it may end up being streamed. It can’t have escaped the notice of anyone whose Venn Diagram finds them at the intersection of US politics and the Internet that both the Obama and Romney campaigns are paying a lot of attention to web ads, and particularly web video ads, in this year’s Presidental Election. Consider, for example, the Romney ads pulled by YouTube temporarily as arguments were made (and ultimately rebutted) about whether the ads were illegal under the the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or the numerous web ads the Obama campaign put out in its rush to convince voters that Romney’s off-shore bank accounts and nebulous relationship with Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002 were inherently untrustworthy, and those two examples are only from the last couple of weeks alone.

It’s tempting to think that political web ads could only have a limited effectiveness, in large part because the majority of their audience have either (a) learned to tune out advertisements and/or ignore pleas to visit videos that do not directly affect or interest them in any way (Any amount of time spent online will find people developing that apathetic skill, after all), or (b) will be amongst the mythical block of disaffected non-voters, considering that voters trend towards older demographics traditionally, and said older demographics may not be spending a lot of time on YouTube. But that large brush thinking would, it seems, be wrong; as of this week, the YouTube account belonging to BarackObama.com has passed the 200 million views mark – At time of writing, it’s at 204,048,035 view; the Mitt Romney campaign account, by way of comparison, is at 14.092,752, but it’s worth remembering that this is Mitt’s first Presidential campaign and Barack’s second. There’s little doubt that he’ll catch up, or something close, at least, soon enough – underscoring the importance of the Internet as a tool of the modern political process.

(To put that last statement in some context; last year, Pew Research Center released a study of the 2010 electoral cycle and found that “fully 73% of adult internet users (representing 54% of all US adults) went online to get news or information about the 2010 midterm elections, or to get involved in the campaign in one way or another,” with 73% of online adults considered to be engaged in politics in some form or another via the Internet.)

According to YouTube’s news and politics manager, Ramya Raghavan, “Campaigns are starting to take more ownership of their presence on YouTube,” stepping up their involvement with the site and its userbase. It makes sense; online video closely resembles the television format that most people are used to, but digital spots are cheaper and faster to produce, and – DMCA squabbles aside – subject to less strict guidelines as to content. Just as worthwhile for the campaigns, YouTube is not only becoming more of a destination for users, but embeddable formats mean that content posted there can be shared around the Internet freely, allowing for more chance of something going viral. It’s win-win for the campaigns – Well, until it comes down to the final count, of course.