The first televised presidential debate, the famed face-off between John F. Kennedy and a rumpled Richard Nixon, was a watershed moment for political campaigners. From that moment on, any aspiring politician had to adapt strategies and make sure that when the cameras were on, his or her appearance projected strength and power.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign took advantage of YouTube in smart new ways. While there’s no single, defining moment in his campaign to offer as proof, the transition of politics into the realm of the Internet, and YouTube in particular, is hard to deny.

What’s actually changed about how campaigns are run and won with YouTube? Here’s a look at how it all happened, and what you can expect to see as we approach the presidential election this fall.

Taking the First Steps

Obama’s success in the 2008 election brought the Internet and social media into a whole new light. He mobilized supporters with email messages and tweets, and capitalized on the popularity of free platforms for spreading his philosophy. In addition to traditional television spots, his team uploaded several campaign ads to YouTube.

According to some political analysts, Obama’s use of YouTube and his overall web savvy helped him unify the powerful youth vote in 2008. Online contributions also accounted for more than $500 million of his fundraising total during the campaign, according to The Washington Post. His performance showed that understanding how to engage supporters on their preferred medium could be a huge benefit for a campaign.

What’s Happening Now

Obama’s use of online networks in 2008 was the harbinger of a new trend. Both Republicans and Democrats realized the importance of creating an online presence. Even more campaign efforts are likely to transition into YouTube and other Internet platforms over time.

For the 2012 election, Obama has continued to push his use of YouTube as a new and improved avenue for communicating with his constituents. As he faces a re-election fight this fall, Obama launched a 17-minute documentary in March titled The Road We’ve Traveled. The short film is available on Obama’s YouTube page, and that site has been updated to increase engagement with voters and supporters.

People can share campaign content to Facebook, volunteer for the Obama team, and donate money to the candidate directly from the YouTube page. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has introduced similar capabilities on his own YouTube account.

Both politicians have digital directors crafting strategies for their campaigns, and both have noted the growing importance of YouTube and online video. Teddy Goff, Obama’s digital director, said the importance of online video channels is still fresh for the political arena, even compared with that first push in 2008. “It’s the ability to get your message out quickly that makes all the difference,” said Zac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign. “That’s really where I think YouTube has found a niche in politics,” added Moffat.

What YouTube Changed For the Better

Part of YouTube’s appeal for politicians is that it can make their messages more engaging. “This year it’s all about getting your message into those trusted networks because everyone is suspicious about politicians,” Darrell West of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution told The New York Times. “It’s hard to be persuasive through a direct advertisement. But if you can get people to share videos, it adds a degree of credibility because a friend is endorsing it and people will take it more seriously,” he added.

Online video also provides a more direct platform for people to comment and debate; candidates can read exactly what viewers think of their messages. There’s also no way to make a short film available on a national network that will bring in the kind of audiences Obama’s been getting on YouTube.

And of course, YouTube trumps television in cost effectiveness. The 2008 Obama campaign online videos were watched a total of 14.5 million hours, according to political analyst, Joe Trippi. Buying that much time on television would have cost his campaign an estimated $47 million. In a time when campaign funding remains a hot-button topic, the savings for candidates using YouTube to spread their messages is a huge benefit. Plus, every dollar will count in a highly divisive race like the one that’s shaping up for November.

Watch Your Back for Mistakes

YouTube hasn’t only made positive changes for politicians. All it takes is one misstep by a candidate to be caught on video and the scandal can now go viral in a matter of hours, if not minutes.

With the popularity of shows like The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report, which make regular use of video clips, there’s a definite interest among voters in seeing their leaders taken down a few pegs. A search for “Rick Perry gaffe” yields about a dozen videos — each with several thousand views — of the Texan making embarrassing statements during this year’s Republican debates.

YouTube can serve as a powerful platform for spreading official content to confirmed supporters and for convincing undecided voters. But beware. The free network is rife with less favorable, unofficial information about any number of candidates. And once a clip is on YouTube, it’s probably there for good!

Have you had any interactions with politicians on YouTube? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: jsawkins, Tbc, Malwack, Jerry Bunkers, Zack Sheppard]