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Mashing Mitt Romney

From Mitt Romney's headquarters in Boston, they issued a call to the online video editing masses. And the call was answered...sort of.

Nearly a month after asking his supporters to create a TV ad by using an archive of photos and audio and video files provided by the campaign, Ryan Whitaker, a 23-year-old student at Romney's alma mater, the Mormon-run Brigham Young University, has been named the winner of Romney's "Create Your Own Ad" mash-up contest.

Out of 129 submissions, 9 videos made the final round, with finalists chosen based on the campaign's favorites and the number of views and positive ratings (called "loves") they received on the online video site Jumpcut. That's also how the winner -- a dynamic, expertly-edited spot created by Whitaker-- was selected. Aides to Romney said the winning video will air at the end of the month, possibly in the early voting states of Florida or South Carolina.

The results show that the online public takes its ad production responsibilities seriously, with many professional-looking spots. But while the quality was high, the quantity was not. For a contest open for more than two weeks, 129 submissions seems a small number -- a reflection, perhaps, of the former Massachusetts governor's relative obscurity among voters.

Imagine if a similar contest had been held for supporters of Rep. Ron Paul or Sen. Barack Obama, both of whom have consistently led their respective fields in the total number of YouTube views, MySpace friends and Facebook supporters, three ways of measuring online popularity. (Number of MySpace friends? Paul: 64,572. Romney: 30,520. Number of YouTube views? Paul: 4.2 million. Romney: 2.2 million.) But as Micah Sifry of TechPresident.com, which tracks how the candidates are campaigning online points out: "Look, it's not easy to make an online video. Making an online video is far harder than writing a blog post." Indeed. Still, Dan Manatt of PoliticsTV.com, which creates news and satirical online videos, counters: "If the contest response is an omen for the primaries, Romney should be worried. MoveOn.org's 'Bush in 30 seconds' contest" -- the liberal group asked members to create an anti-President Bush spot -- "got 10 times more responses than Romney got. And that was in 2004, before Web video was even big."

Whatever the number of submissions, it's undeniable that Romney has made the riskiest Internet gamble yet in a campaign that's being fought as much online as offline. To the surprise of some online observers, the contest attracted few anti-Romney ads -- and that's partly due to its detailed rules and instructions.

"When I first heard about the contest I thought it was crazy and genius at the same time," says Whitaker, who spent seven hours creating the winning video. "Crazy because when you give that kind of invitation online, anyone can make anything they want. But it's also genius because it gives people like me -- I'm a starving student -- a perfect opportunity to support the campaign, to feel like I'm a part of it."

Online video has turned into the big X factor-- the YouTube effect -- of this campaign. Sen. Hillary Clinton showed her cool, hip side with her "Sopranos"-inspired video in June and when she announced the winner of her help-me-pick-a-campaign-song contest. Earlier this week, while touting his re-designed site, John Edwards plugged a non-partisan voting reform initiative by asking supporters to become "Why Tuesday?" -- referring to the day presidential elections are held -- video correspondents. Ask your local council member, mayor, congressman, etc., why Americans vote on Tuesday on camera and upload the video online.

Romney, for his part, has had a complex, love-and-hate relationship with online videos.

When an online video showing his previous support for abortion and gay rights surfaced on YouTube, he responded on YouTube, a deft move. But that didn't stop YouTubers from uploading more anti-Romney videos. Type "Romney" and "abortion" on YouTube, and the first two of 100 videos that pop up -- one is called the "Mitt Romney Abortion Flip Flop Quiz" -- highlight his changing positions on abortion. Sure, he's got more videos on his YouTube channel -- 357 and counting -- than Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and Paul combined. But while all three are scheduled to participate in the the CNN/YouTube debate in November, Romney has yet to accept the invitation. He's criticized the format and has taken special offense to a YouTuber, dressed as a snowman, asking a question about global warming.

And while the 129 submitted contest videos play on the common campaign themes of "strength," "innovation" and "experience," the campaign couldn't stop users from mocking its contest and creating their own anti-Romney videos -- right on Jumpcut. A popular one is a re-telling of a story that Romney told his eldest son, Tagg. The young Tagg, Romney has said, was thinking of becoming a Democrat. But when father told son that Democrats want gay marriage, Tagg said, "No Way!" The video, created by Slate's Bruce Reed, is titled "Way!"

As it happens, Reed's video has been viewed nearly 64,000 times on Jumpcut. Whitaker's winning video has clocked in some 17,501 views.

--Jose Antonio Vargas

By Washington Post editors  |  September 27, 2007; 2:20 PM ET
 
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