Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Politics

Inside the GOP war room where Web ads are reshaping campaign warfare

WASHINGTON

As Mitt Romney's campaign descended into damage control this week over secretly recorded comments at a fundraiser in Florida, 25-year-old Josh Sharp hovered over a Mac Pro in a small office on Capitol Hill, busily splicing video and audio of President Barack Obama.

Early Wednesday morning, Sharp's colleagues at the Republican National Committee unleashed his handiwork: a 50-second roundhouse kick featuring newly surfaced comments from Obama saying he believes in "redistribution" of wealth.

The video, bearing the dramatic music and quality production of a traditional political ad, spread to news sites, across Twitter, through email and, most satisfying for Republicans, landed on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

The exposure was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising time. But it cost nothing. Eager for fresh visual content in a 24/7 news cycle, bloggers, reporters and TV producers devoured it.

Web videos — known that way because they are not produced as paid spots — have exploded this election and are shaping campaign warfare and the debate. The redistribution video helped divert attention from Romney's fundraising comments and amplified the Republican portrait of Obama as a big-government advocate.

"There's definitely a rush of adrenaline. You're trying to be the first to get your messaging into the campaign narrative," said Sharp, a clean-cut Californian whose formal video editing training consists of a course in high school, the rest cobbled together from Google searches and on-the-job trial and error.

The Republican National Committee has emerged as a leader of the genre, producing rapid-response videos and longer-term message pieces. The committee was first with a video playing off a news conference in June where Obama declared "the private sector is doing fine." The video garnered free air time worth about $470,000.

An hour after Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, the Republican National Committee produced a video showing how the president recycled lines, almost word for word, from past speeches. "Familiar Rhetoric" has been viewed more than 1.1 million times on YouTube.

This week has been one of the busiest in the 2012 campaign, and Web videos have helped drive the discussion, with a flurry produced over Romney's comments, then Obama's. Friday morning, Obama's campaign unleashed its latest video featuring voters bristling over Romney's fundraiser comments that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government handouts and see themselves as victims.

"The amount of content available this week is at least double a comparable week in the 2008 election," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who is tracking the trend.

The Republican National Committee has produced more than 130 Web ads this cycle, compared with 63 two years ago, generating more than 7.6 million views on YouTube. By tracking just a dozen videos that made it into broadcast and cable news coverage, the committee says it got another 52 million views.

"We're geared toward taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself," said Matt Connelly, a committee spokesman. "Because that's how it has to be. You know how it is with Twitter and Facebook and everything going 24/7."

Videos from both ideological sides often lack context or make dubious claims, but they keep coming in waves.

Jamieson said the most striking development is how the videos are being used to rally people who are already decided on a candidate, not the traditional target of an ad.

Disseminated through vast email lists, the videos "become a means of training people to argue your case," Jamieson said. That increases intensity levels, motivating people to donate money, do grass roots campaigning and contact their friends. "Those are things you can't buy."

Most of the Republican National Committee's work is done in-house, a departure from past campaigns. Inside a cramped, low-ceiling war room, staffers in their 20s sit for hours monitoring news websites. Headlines are captured for use in videos. "Obama is going to spin stuff however he wants," Sharp said. "He's going to say the private sector is doing fine. But you can't argue with the headline from your local paper saying this plant is closing."

In front of the room, 11 TV monitors are tuned to different news channels. Because CNN and others only cover a few minutes of a campaign appearance, three computers are equipped to record live-streaming video. The videos are cataloged in a database for later retrieval.

This week turned brutal for Romney after the secret video surfaced. Amid a firing squad of Republicans who fretted Romney had lost his way, popped up a 1998 speech in which Obama said he believed in redistribution (he said he wanted everyone to have a shot and criticized some government agencies.)

Sharp pounced, calling Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder, who remembered Obama being asked about redistribution in a 60 Minutes interview. Sharp got the war room to pull the interview and cut the clip, which he combined with the 1998 audio using Final Cut Pro software.

At 8:25 a.m. Wednesday an email announcing the video was blasted to reporters, pundits and more. To entice TV stations, a download link was provided for high-quality video.

Sharp watched the results roll in but was soon back to work. During a campaign appearance in Miami on Thursday, Obama said that he learned over the past four years that change cannot happen from within Washington. Sharp and his team worked through the night, assembling a montage of archival clips of Obama talking about change and juxtaposed them with his new words. Friday morning, the latest Web video was born.

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