From the November climax of the 2004 campaign to the December immediately following, traffic to the progressive blog DailyKos plunged 47%, according to ComScore. The Drudge Report had lost almost a quarter of its November 2004 traffic by that December. And Real Clear Politics, the edited aggregator that's a big winner in this year's election, saw its November 2004 traffic plummet 86%.
Drudge looms large again this election year, most recently drawing 2.1 million visitors in September, 70% more than last September, according to ComScore. Real Clear Politics is back, drawing more than 1.1 million visitors in September, up 489%. DailyKos is a big player again too, with 923,000 visitors last month for a gain of 381%. And a newcomer, Politico, is shaking things up with 2.4 million visitors in September, 344% above last year.
But this year's election champion online is The Huffington Post, the 3-year-old liberal news aggregator and blog hub edited by Arianna Huffington. Last month it attracted 4.5 million unique visitors, a 474% gain over September 2007 and the best performance yet in its short life, according to ComScore.
Its particular heights, at the same time, leave its traffic particularly vulnerable. The Huffington Post seems to have drawn a lot of its strength from lefty outrage over the Bush administration and simultaneous liberal enthusiasm for Democrats on the upswing.
"Looking at the slant here, maybe by virtue of the fact that this is a more left-leaning cycle, it does seem that a lot of the gains are more pronounced at a lot of the left-leaning sites," said Andrew Lipsman, senior manager for industry analysis at ComScore.
It's easy to imagine that momentum dissipating once there's no Bush in the White House to bash, especially if Democrats take the White House and strengthen their hold on Congress. The Huffington Post declined to discuss whether it is profitable, but a big post-election swoon in traffic would certainly deal a setback to its business plans. From January through August of this election year, the site collected just $302,000 in ad revenue, according to an estimate from TNS Media Intelligence.
Ms. Huffington, however, said she is not worried.
"These are trying times, with the economic crisis and the country fighting two wars, and people are going to want to stay up on what is happening in America and around the world," she said last week. "Our role of ferreting out the truth and holding our leaders' feet to the fire won't change if Obama is in the White House."
If the example of cable news means anything, victory doesn't have to mean interest wanes. Fox News eclipsed CNN in the ratings among 25- to 49-year-olds during the 2001-2002 season, after President George W. Bush took office. Ms. Huffington said she hopes that if Barack Obama does secure the White House, it will have a similar effect on her website.
"There is also something about the shift in the country," Ms. Huffington said. "Looking at what is happening as left vs. right misses the point. The center has shifted. And Huffington Post is where the new center is."
Proving her optimistic outlook, Ms. Huffington is preparing for life after the vote. The Huffington Post has already introduced sections on areas including entertainment, media, business, the environment and living. It plans to introduce sections on books before the end of the year and on international news before the inauguration.
Same standards for all: Editor in chief Arianna Huffington says the site will continue to hold leaders' feet to the fire no matter who is in the White House.
"Our goal is twofold," she added. "One is to cater to every interest of our users. The other is to draw into Huffington Post people who are not necessarily political."
Their efforts seem to be working. "My 15-year-old daughter called me one day and said, 'Mom, you won't believe it, but Perez Hilton linked to Huffington Post!" Ms. Huffington said. Perez Hilton, the celebrity gossip megasite, had just linked to an Oct. 9 HuffPo blog post by actor Ryan Reynolds about his plan to run the New York City Marathon to raise money for Parkinson's disease.
They're thinking the same way at Real Clear Politics. It's seen election cycles before and expects to retain many of the new visitors. "The pattern's always been higher highs and higher lows," said John McIntyre, president and co-founder. "A lot of new people who get exposed to the site end up staying and becoming regular users."
To help them find reasons to stay, Real Clear Politics has launched Real Clear Markets, Real Clear Sports and an international site called Real Clear World. "That's another way we're looking past the election," Mr. McIntyre said.
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Contributing: Abbey Klaassen