Not everyone saw this coming. Fred Davis, the Los Angeles-based GOP ad vet who created the "Celebrity" ad, says, "Flat-out-talented filmmakers tend to be in the film industry, not in politics. And if they are interested in politics, they tend to be bloody liberals." But the opportunities afforded by new media as a platform for cheap-to-produce, brand-shaping video have revealed a side of Republicans that many never knew existed. Beyond Ehlinger and Baiano, there's a growing pack of young videographers and Web-based ad wizards capitalizing on the Republican candidates' willingness to take creative risks, earning themselves an unprecedented fast track to political relevance.
"There are more and more kids coming up," says Justin Germany, a 31-year-old, cowboy-hat-wearing, stubble-chinned pioneer of run-and-gun camerawork who is "the future of media in politics," according to McKinnon. Germany is already a veteran of two presidential runs (Dubya '04, McCain '08) and can watch with satisfaction as the Republican field embraces the fresh-faced breed he helped spawn—video mavens like Richard Sales, a 26-year-old who churns out spots for the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, and up-and-comers like PassCode Creative, the Nashville-based operation responsible for a series of rabble-rousing mini-docs bankrolled by SarahPAC, the former Alaska governor's political-action committee. Founded by a former Palin staffer (Jason Recher), the son of country-music star Larry Gatlin (Josh Gatlin), and an award-winning music-video director (Eric Welch), PassCode got its first commission in February 2010, when Palin was at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Recher arranged the introduction. "She got a good vibe," says Welch, who soon found himself surrounded by flag-waving Tea Partiers at a rally in Searchlight, Nevada, running to capture as many wide-angle shots as he could, utilizing his experience shooting concerts for Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. "I just thought, 'Man, it'd be nice to present conservative ideals with an edgier, more aggressive, artistic look,' " Welch says.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. PassCode's first video, "Mama Grizzlies," got more than half a million views on YouTube last summer and prompted CNN's Rick Sanchez to practically erupt on-air. "The whole thing is so well put-together," Sanchez said. "I mean, writing, lighting, editing . . . it looked Reagan-esque!" Germany's capture-the-moment intensity was greeted in similar fashion in 2004, during Bush's reelection campaign, when the filmmaker was just 24. ("The video stands out, not for its content but for its edgy, unpresidential style," observed the New York Times, "with grainy pictures, speeded-up action and off-kilter camera angles shouting out 'You got a problem with this?' to anyone under 25.") And when Sales, on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released an April Fool's video earlier this year touting Obama's accomplishments (voice-over: "A president . . . who consults with key decision-makers"—cue Obama onstage with a Jonas Brother and Paul McCartney), it got 250,000 views in the first 24 hours and 1 million views within six days. "I'm surprised Comedy Central's not jealous," said a guest on The Sean Hannity Show, " 'cause it looks like something they would've produced for The Daily Show." Forget generic amber waves of grain; Republicans are ready to roll out the quirky, high-energy spots that connect with, in Baiano's words, "my generation of voters."
"Back in the day, shooting an ad required huge crews and days of analog editing in huge and expensive facilities," McKinnon says. "The young guns today are one-man bands who can do it all. They can script, shoot, edit, approve, and ship a spot within a matter of hours." Web ads can be "grittier, grimier" than their TV counterparts, Germany says. "You can take a few chances, you can blast the music, let loose." For the most part, these new filmmakers admire one another's work, each of their successes validating the group as a whole, moving them up the political totem pole. "I think of them as colleagues, not competitors," Sales says.
That doesn't mean they are without creative differences. "A lot of these campaign videos are just Michael Bay movie music," says Welch, who scored "Mama Grizzlies" with a plinking piano. Ehlinger insists that his right-wing brethren need to push the envelope further. "I believe in fighting to win, not fighting to avoid a loss," he says. "Fuck you if you're offended. I am only interested in those political candidates that offer the most freedom for me and my art."
If the battle for the White House is going to be swung online, the stage is set for a rousing run-up to the 2012 general election. "The Democrats have had this puppy nailed for a while—they're not to be fucked with," says Nicco Mele, who served as the Web director of Howard Dean's ground-breaking, pre-YouTube campaign and now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. But he recognizes that Obama & Co. will be facing an entirely new opponent this time: The GOP, he says, is "going to try everything under the sun to win." Germany agrees—he and his fellow right-wing auteurs have this "off-the-wall, hard-hitting material" down pat, he says. Even as they toil on their own projects, using congressional campaigns as target practice, they are aiming for a common goal: a Republican image constructed on humor, art, and entertainment—and high production values. And they have a common enemy. As Germany says, "All guns will be blazing on Obama."