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Do You YouTube?

ImageA giant python constricting an unassuming animal expert, a Star Wars parody featuring cats, and a college student waxing on the intricacies of “beer pong” — those are video clips commonly found on You-Tube.com.

But the Internet juggernaut, known for its novelty videos primarily aimed at and submitted by adolescents, may be growing up a bit. Much has been made of Sen. Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls’ use of the Web site to publicize their campaigns, and the strategy has surfaced in Wisconsin elections as well.

Although local candidates and experts admit embracing trendy tools like YouTube, and sister social online connectors like MySpace and Facebook are the next phase of campaign promotion, some are skeptical as to how much impact they will have on voters in a regional election right now.

“Certainly, I think it can be useful, but as a tool to communicate on smaller elections, it may not be that effective,” said Richard Judge, public affairs director for Foley & Lardner, LLP, in Madison. “The reason YouTube has an influence is because it creates a broad base media; a critical mass all over the country are looking at the same thing and having some common perception.”

Will Wisconsinites Watch?

The use of online resources for campaign promotion is not new to Wisconsin, as candidates routinely construct Web sites, but the integration of video messages has emerged throughout the last several state races.

Darrin Schmitz, president of the Madison-based consulting firm Persuasion Partners, Inc. (PPI), posted campaign commercials for Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and Supreme Court Justice Annette K. Ziegler on YouTube during their respective races in 2006 and 2007.

How much of an effect those postings had on their victories is hard to gauge, but the impact was likely positive, according to Schmitz,who helped develop a YouTube segment for current Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Michael J. Gableman, a circuit court judge in Burnett County.

“I think any modern campaign uses technology to its advantage and YouTube provides the ability to hear from candidates directly,” said Schmitz.

The question is, does anybody listen?

Although a candidate may circulate his or her platform on YouTube, targeting the voting public in a specific area is challenging, especially young voters in an election which traditionally has low voter turnout.

“You are going to have all these efforts to get young people out, but it’s a tough sell getting college students to vote for the state Supreme Court, which is not usually a very sexy race,” said former political analyst Wayne Youngquist.

Sachin Chheda, campaign manager for Supreme Court Justice Louis B. Butler Jr., downplayed the mass appeal of Web-based promotion for the spring 2008 election.

“I think, to be frank, very few people in this kind of race use candidate Web sites,” said Chheda. “There are 5 million people in Wisconsin and we need to reach a whole lot of them, but I don’t think the vast majority are getting their political information through tricky stuff online.”

Chheda said that Butler’s site would post commercials as the February primary nears, but that the campaign will focus on traditional means of advertising — print, television and radio.

“A campaign of our size uses nuts and bolts,” said Chheda. “As a political person, I think the jury is still out on whether the new gimmicky things actually change voters’ minds in Wisconsin.”

Getting Out There

Although finding an audience may be difficult, just getting your face out there in the online universe can benefit a candidate, especially one facing a financial crunch.

“It is cost effective and computers today have the equipment which allows a candidate to do a lot for a little,” said Judge. “They don’t have to pay a media consultant $17,000 to put a commercial out there. They can have an intern splicing together clips they already have and make it acceptable to put on Web, where production values aren’t the greatest, but their message is out there.”

That is an approach taken by Supreme Court candidate Charles Schutze, a Sun Prairie attorney, who admitted his pockets are not as deep as Butler’s. Schutze is currently acting as his own campaign manager and plans to employ his “computer literate” friends in establishing YouTube and MySpace links.

“It’s definitely something I’m planning on doing because it’s cheaper than the old methods,” said Schutze.

At the same time, Schmitz said there is a danger of relying too heavily on Web-based promotion, no matter how inexpensive.

“Part of that depends on how much you are willing to invest per vote to reach a voter,” said Schmitz. “Some campaigns look for Cadillac versions of Web sites and other types of voter contact technology. If you feel the need to spend gobs of money, there is a point of diminishing returns.”

Using tools like YouTube in conjunction with broader forms of campaigning will prove most beneficial for the local candidates, said Evan N. Zeppos, president of public relations firm Zeppos & Associates, Inc.

“Sure, they can be used alone, but the Internet is a vast, vast universe, and there are lots of hurdles to getting people to notice your campaign there,” said Zeppos.

Youth Movement

YouTube’s popularity may be nearing its peak, or it may just be evolving to include a new audience. Either way, political and judicial candidates in Wisconsin appear not to want to be left behind.

“It’s not a black and white situation,” said Schmitz. “Certainly if someone is a frequent user of YouTube and either stumbles upon or searches for something related to something like the Supreme Court race, then it’s all the better.”

The technology seeds planted today may not sprout an immediate election victory, but over time, they may.

“If you talk four and eight years down the road, teens are now voting age and it could have an impact,” said Youngquist. “Right now, it at least shows them that you are cutting edge.”

For some candidates, mastery of the medium may be always be difficult because of the demographics. To fully utilize sites like YouTube a candidate needs to resonate with the majority of users, according to Judge.

“If you are a cool candidate, that helps immensely,” said Judge, who used Obama and Rudolph Giuliani as examples. “Everybody is going to have a strategy that addresses it, but it may not work for everybody.”

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