The shot comes about two minutes and thirty-four seconds into the video. A mother in her late 60s, dressed in a cream-colored suit, stands in an almost empty room, watching her daughter on TV. As her daughter speaks, the mother turns to the woman who is seated next to her, and squeals: “Ohhhh she looks so prettyyyyy!”
It’s a show of motherly pride so natural it would be completely unremarkable were it not for the fact that the the mother in the room is Hillary Clinton, the daughter is Chelsea Clinton, and the clip is part of a backstage compilation video about the 2016 Democratic National Convention, produced by the Clinton campaign.
In the surreal world of presidential politics, this otherwise mundane scene is what those in the biz like to call an “authentic moment.” And, well, Clinton needs these moments. With a favorability rating of about 41 percent, and an opponent whose chief claim to fame is “telling it like it is,” Clinton’s campaign needs badly to show voters her candid side.
Which is why it was no coincidence this intimate moment was caught on camera. The Clinton campaign has essentially built its own internal production company, made up of some 30 filmmakers, editors, and producers all hailing from companies like Vice, National Geographic, MTV, and Bravo, who train their cameras on Clinton’s every move and document her life on the campaign trail.
“She is the most known unknown public figure,” says Sierra Kos, Clinton’s director of video, “and it’s my duty to make sure that people see this broader picture of her that we get to see.”
There’s nothing new about campaigns trying to convey authenticity on camera. (Candidates haven’t been kissing babies all this time for their own health.) What is new are all the ways in which campaigns can create and disseminate that video themselves. For almost every election since 1955, television has been the only way to get that footage to the voting public, and that has meant either buying advertising or working with the press. Now social media feeds, from Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat, are positively brimming with video.
But Facebook has become the video juggernaut. Since last March, says Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director, election-related videos have received a whopping 13 billion views on Facebook, and during the two weeks of conventions this summer, about 365 days’ worth of election related content went out through Facebook Live.
“Most of this is being watched on a mobile device,” Harbath says, and that’s important because it means candidates are reaching voters where they already are: their smartphones.
This election, even more than the last, is taking place in the age of overexposure, in which the online masses don’t just crave seeing the famous and powerful in their unscripted moments, they expect it. They want to see supermodel Chrissy Teigen looking flawless on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but also chowing down on too much pizza and showing off her stretch marks. They want to see President Obama speaking sternly about economic issues but also getting pumped up to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” backstage at the DNC.
These dual personalities are tough to fit into a stump speech–or a press conference. Video gives candidates more of a free hand to shape their own image, beyond the prying eyes of the press. That’s especially true for Clinton, who has had a notoriously chilly relationship with the media this cycle. She only recently broke a 275-day streak in which she held not a single press conference with the journalists who travel the country with her.
But if you’re an average American with a Facebook account, you might not have known that, because all the while, the Clinton campaign has been churning out over 1,000 videos like the one described above.
They allow people to peek in on Clinton’s quiet conversations with people on the campaign trail, like the time she consoled a girl named Karla in Nevada, as she cried to Clinton over fears that her parents could be deported. Clinton pulled Karla to her side and called her brave. “It really was the most Hillary moment I can describe,” Kos says. “When I interact with her, that’s show I see her. We happened to capture it.”
Of course, the proliferation of video also means that anyone with a smartphone can capture candidates in their most vulnerable moments, as was the case when Clinton nearly fainted while leaving the September 11th memorial last weekend. The video, which was taken by a bystander, not a professional journalist, reached millions of people within a matter of hours.1
But while the Clinton campaign can’t control those moments, its video team is also working hard to control the narrative around Donald Trump. Allan Piper, a video producer who worked on President Obama’s campaign, creates the bulk of Clinton’s anti-Trump videos–a job in which speed is of the utmost importance.
Unlike the rest of the team, which fixates on Clinton’s every move, Piper says he spends about 10 hours a day watching and listening to Trump, ready to jump on any inconsistencies in his rhetoric or extreme statements. When he finds them, it’s Piper’s job to edit a response video fast enough that the news cycle hasn’t already passed him by.
“Every time this goes around, the news cycles get faster,” he says, “and we have an opponent who says a wider variety of things that we feel it’s important for people not to miss that he said this thing.”
The day of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June, the Clinton campaign released a video of Trump in Scotland talking about how his golf course would benefit from a fall in the price of the British pound. The day Trump met with Mexican President Pena Nieto, the video team spliced together a reel of Trump saying the two men didn’t discuss who would pay for Trump’s southern border wall, followed by footage of Nieto saying they did discuss it and that he won’t.
“90 percent of our job is achieved just by showing Donald Trump in his own words,” Piper says.
Both candidates can now instantly reach millions of people with every upload. That’s a whole different kind of scale than anyone could have hoped for back in 2012, says Piper. “In 2012 we were really happy if one of these videos got 1 million views,” Piper says. This year, a single video about Trump’s record in Atlantic City received over 54 million views across platforms.
Of course, Trump has his own video operation. His campaign declined to comment on its video shop, which puts out a steady stream of news clips, snippets of speeches, or shots of Trump speaking directly to the camera. It has the look and feel of a far more bare bones outfit. Then again, it’s not like Trump has ever had a problem with exposure.
1Update 9:30 am ET 9/18/16 This story has been updated.