Aaron Smith at Pew muses about the effect YouTube is having in the presidential primary race as Barack Obama's powerful Iowa caucuses speech is relayed around the Internet:
"it's likely that relatively few people, outside of the most inveterate political junkies, actually did watch the speech live and in its entirety. And prior to the days of broadband access and easily accessible online video, it's likely that most voters would never have seen more of the speech than an odd clip here or there on the cable and network news shows. Instead, more than 160,000 people have watched just the official campaign YouTube clip alone in the twelve hours since it was posted, in addition to the tens or hundreds of thousands more who watched from other video or news sites."
Things are different this time around. On the one hand, the explosion of media choices has fractured the audience so we have relatively few common experiences. On the other hand, the "word of mouth" power of the Internet allows an occasional experience to spread quickly, based on a chain of recommendations by individuals, not media power brokers.
One of the effects of this transformation is an increased volatility in public opinion. Three or four months ago most pundits claimed, and I tended to agree, that Hilary Clinton was an unstoppable juggernaut.
I first encountered this effect in what I consider to be the first major campaign truly altered by the Internet: Jesse Ventura's 1998 election as governor of Minnesota.
Ventura's backers, many of them former Ross Perot followers, were able to connect, organize, recruit and communicate through the Internet in ways that previously had not been possible.
Political parties, pundits and mainstream media were caught off guard by a grassroots process that unfolded under the conventional radar, and Ventura, not taken seriously in the months leading up to the vote, "shocked the world."
In hindsight it was possible to find clues in the raw Minnesota Poll data about the volatility and dissatisfaction with the conventional candidates (Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman). Lessons from that experience undoubtedly helped the Iowa Poll folks sharpen their pencils and come up with a much more accurate prediction in the final hours before this year's caucuses.
Now we have all sorts of predictions that Obama may become the new juggernaut. Maybe. But keep in mind that public opinion today is more volatile than ever, and a slip or unexpected turn of events could change everything again.