Sen. Biden’s Macaca Moment: Pandering or Unguarded?

As part of the SMUG Political Science seminar series, we’ve previously looked at the use of social media by the McCain and Obama campaigns. The campaigns and their cohorts have created platforms for their supporters to interact and express themselves, and also have established outposts within the major networking sites like YouTube and Facebook to interact directly with voters instead of completely relying on mainstream media.

But the essence of social media — and its real power — is that anyone can use it.

When former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) had his macaca moment in 2006, it seemed he went out of his way to cause the problem for himself. He knew a Democrat operative was following him and specifically called attention to that person before using the word that has come to symbolize the power of unscripted video posted on YouTube to influence an election. When you know, as Sen. Allen did, that a video camera is pointed at you, you had best be on your guard. To paraphrase Miranda, you know that what you say and do can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

But what if you don’t know the camera is there?

I’m thinking this video of Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Obama’s running mate, on a rope line in Ohio was taken with a Flip camera, or another similarly small point-and-shoot video recorder. He doesn’t seem to notice the camera.


When you click through to see the original video, you’ll find that it was posted by someone working for an organization that is against further development of clean-coal technology. Here is the video description:

At a campaign stop in 2006 All American City, Maumee, OH Joe Biden talks to a 1Sky campaigner about energy policy. Biden is called out on his platform that includes coal. Both 1Sky and the Energy Action Coalition are opposed to the development of new coal fired power plants. Energy Action Coalition is running Power Vote, a national youth based campaign to get 1,000,000 youth voters voting for clean energy this election season.

And just to clarify, the campaign stop happened just last week; Maumee was an All-American City in 2006.

For those unfamiliar with the electoral implications, neighboring Pennsylvania is a huge coal-producing state and also is a Keystone (pardon the pun) to the Electoral College math that will decide the presidential election.

The McCain campaign immediately jumped on this statement and its negative impact for Pennsylvania jobs, and the Obama campaign accused the McCain campaign of distorting Biden’s position.

It seems, though, that there are really only two possibilities for interpreting Sen. Biden’s remarks:

  1. He was pandering to this environmentalist voter, telling her what he knew she wanted to hear, even though his real position is that he supports clean coal technology, or
  2. He was captured in an unguarded moment, saying what he really thinks about clean coal.

Am I missing something? Is there another interpretation that could fit the evidence you see in this video?

Either he misled the activist in what he thought was a semi-private conversation (with hundreds of people around), or he’s being less-than-truthful about his support for clean coal.

Pandering is not a new phenomenon in politics. When I started to get politically involved in the 1980s, I heard stories about the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the ‘50s speaking to grain farmers in the morning about propping up corn prices and then giving a speech to hog farmers in the evening, a couple of counties away, saying something needed to be done to get the costs of feed down. (For those of you from non-agricultural backgrounds, feed is corn.)

That story may be apocryphal, so don’t add it to Sen. Humphrey’s Wikipedia entry, but the advent of mass media made this kind of pandering more difficult, or at least more costly when politicians were caught.

Now the stakes are even higher. With ubiquitous recording devices in the hands of both opponents and average citizens, candidates can’t afford unguarded moments or pandering, because what they say will come to light.

Sen. Biden comes across as arguing fairly passionately against coal, but I’m no mind reader as to his actual position. To borrow a phrase, “That’s above my pay grade.” 😉 Voters (especially in Pennsylvania) may judge for themselves whether they think he was pandering or expressing his heartfelt opposition to (even clean) coal. Or this video may just contribute to voter distrust, because this is worse than just a flip-flop in which a candidate was “for it before he was against it.” This is saying two different things about the same issue at the same time.

One more item: as surrogates for Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama were making the post-debate TV rounds last night, Sen. Biden dropped this gem about having devised “with Barack” the strategy that Gen. Petraeus is using.


Jeff Emanuel has a good analysis of this. And it just shows that candidates can say things that damage their credibility even when they’re fully prepped and aware that they’re on national TV.

And in our SMUG spirit of bipartisanship, although I support Sarah Palin and share her values, this answer to Katie Couric wasn’t her best moment, either.

What other macaca moments have you seen this year, from candidates of either party? Please share the links in the comments below, and I will update this post to reflect your contributions.

Election 2008 on Twitter

If you haven’t checked out this Election2008 site on Twitter, you really should. It’s a great way to see a real-time political pulse, although the population of the Twitterverse seems to be pretty skewed to the left/Obama side.

Any Tweets that mention Biden, McCain, Obama, or Palin flow together in a continuously updated river of news. A few minutes ago I tweeted my ambivalence over whether to watch the debate tonight, or instead tune to the Twins-Royals game. With a moment, my post appeared on the page. (Click the image below to enlarge.)

I expect the Twitter pace will pick up through the night.

Meanwhile, for the next 45 minutes or so I’m definitely watching the Twins (and also rooting for the Indians, who are up 1-0 over the White Sox as of this moment.)

Social Media 301: GOP and McCain Use of Web

No campaign has used the Web as effectively as Barack Obama’s has, as his record-setting fundraising totals testify. He’s the second-most popular person on Facebook, after Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. I have invited any SMUGgle with first-hand experience of the Obama on-line campaign (and who got the early-morning text message last Saturday about the Biden selection as the VP candidate) to become an Associate Professor and write a post analyzing its strengths (and whatever weaknesses they may see.) A couple of people have expressed interest, although neither has yet submitted a post. Hopefully we’ll have something fairly soon.

Meanwhile, because my political leanings are conservative and because I worked in campaigns and government on the Republican side for 14 years prior to a career change, I’m doing this post examining the McCain campaign and its use of the Web.

As of this writing, Sen. McCain trails Sen. Obama by 1,236,581 “supporters” on Facebook, although I think there has been something of an uptick in support for McCain since he named Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The GOP candidate recently launched a redesigned McCainSpace, which Erick at TechCrunch reviewed with a jab at the candidate’s superannuation. He also expressed bewilderment at why both McCain and Obama feel it is necessary to create their own social networks given that large social networks like Facebook and MySpace already exist.

While I generally agree with Erick’s perspective for most businesses and organizations, in this case he’s flat wrong. The campaigns of the two major party candidates for President are by definition “big enough” to create a critical mass of interest that can make a standalone social network successful.

Like the Republican “all of the above” energy policy that supports increased drilling, conservation and development of renewable alternatives, the social networking strategy for national campaigns should involve both the general purpose sites like Facebook and a proprietary site. In this way, campaigns own the data and can avoid being in a position where a decision by Mark Zuckerberg or his MySpace counterpart would limit their ability to communicate with supporters. And when you create your own site, you have the freedom to add functionality not available in the general purpose sites.

It’s not “either/or;” it’s “both/and.” I’m a McCain supporter on Facebook, but I haven’t joined McCainSpace. Other people may not want to join Facebook, but are motivated enough by the presidential campaign to want to get involved somehow. If they go to, they may just decide to join his social network as their introduction to social networking.

Although the McCain campaign has been behind in its adoption of Web 2.0 strategies, it’s doing fairly well in more traditional Internet campaigning. For example, when I searched for Joe Biden this evening on Google, here was the result page (click to enlarge).

Note that when you click the sponsored link that has the top position on the right side, it takes you to a place where you can see this ad (embedded from YouTube below):


The McCain campaign has others of its ads (including this one that is 94 seconds long and couldn’t be used on broadcast TV) on its YouTube channel.

On the site, as of this evening I saw this banner at the top of the page, which apparently offers different views of the site based on the user’s indication of voting intent (click the image to enlarge).

His site also has a McCain Nation section to encourage activism, a blog that publishes photos and campaign news (and also has embedded YouTube videos, and also has a Volunteer Action Center.

So, while the McCain campaign hasn’t attracted as big a following in the social networking sites, and hasn’t raised anything near the astronomical amounts Obama’s has through the Web and otherwise, it does appear to be closing the gap somewhat and doing some basic things right.

The polls seem to indicate that this race will be another extremely close one. It’s guaranteed to be historic, with either the first African-American president or the first woman VP.

I renew my call for someone on the other side of the aisle to provide a Social Media 302 course on the Obama campaign’s use of the Web.

Update: Scott Meis, on his Social Media Snippets blog, has provided a helpful overview of the Obama campaign’s web efforts. Thanks, Scott!

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Obama, Biden and a Call for a SMUG Associate Professor

It turns out that mainstream media still got the scoop on Sen. Obama’s choice for VP, despite the campaign promise to break the news to supporters first via SMS and e-mail. Here’s the AP story:

Obama’s decision leaked to the media several hours before his aides planned to send a text message announcing the running mate, negating a promise that people who turned over their phone numbers would be the first to know who Obama had chosen. The campaign scrambled to send the text message after the leak, sending phones buzzing at the inconvenient time of just after 3 a.m. on the East coast.

I guess if you’re a strong enough supporter to give your cell phone number to a political campaign, you’ll probably forgive both the broken promise and the 2 a.m. CDT message disrupting your sleep.

I hardly ever get into politics on this blog, but I was a political science major and worked for 14 years in politics and government. It’s hard for me to fathom that an announcement like this — the most important one of the campaign — would be leaked accidentally to the media after the campaign had made such a big deal about texting the choice to supporters first.

Disclosure: My political background is on the other side of the aisle, and I’ll be voting for the “Wrinkly, White-Haired Guy.” And I’m thinking our Minnesota Governor, Tim Pawlenty, will be his running mate.

I have been interested, though, in how Sen. Obama’s campaign has used social media, but I haven’t wanted to give my e-mail address or cell phone number to the campaign to experience it directly. You can’t even get into his Web site without providing your e-mail.

So this is a call for someone to join the SMUG faculty as Associate Professor and do an analysis of the Obama campaign’s use of social media. I’m sure that among our 150+ SMUGgles we have several who received that early-morning SMS. If you’ve experienced the on-line Obama campaign first-hand and would like to write a post about what strategies and tactics you think have been most effective, you can become an Associate Professor in the SMUG Department of Political Science.

If anyone else wants to write a post about Sen. McCain and the RNC’s use of social media, or any of the other campaigns’ activities (such as Ralph Nader’s or Cynthia McKinney’s), those would be welcome, too.

Ground Rules: This will not be a discussion of the merits of candidates or their policy positions. There is no lack of sites where those debates are already taking place, both on the right and the left. The SMUG discussion will about how the campaigns and their supporters are using social media tools.

Apply for a Associate Professor position via e-mail at the address listed in the “Contact the Chancellor” sidebar item.

If you just want to share your brief impressions of the campaigns’ use of social media, you can put those in the comments below. Same ground rules apply.

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