Why Bloggers Can't Win White House

Ned Lamont Gives Netroots a Rare Win, but Race Isn't Likely to Be a Bellwether

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- After years of hype and "moral" victories, the netroots movement can claim an actual win after pushing Ned Lamont to the top in Connecticut's Democratic primary. But experienced campaign managers aren't going to be dumping their entire war chests into blogs and YouTube just yet.
Netroots may have helped Ned Lamont win the primary, but a seat in the Senate is far from certain.
Netroots may have helped Ned Lamont win the primary, but a seat in the Senate is far from certain. Credit: AP

For all the talk of citizens' media and digital revolutions, only one thing counts in politics. "You either win or you lose. You either get 51% or not. Campaigns don't have the luxury to gamble with something they don't think is proven to work," said Michael Bassik, VP-online advertising at MSHC Partners, John Kerry's online agency of record during his failed presidential bid.

Failed to deliver
And before last week, the netroots -- the name generally given to liberal online activists -- simply hadn't delivered the ultimate prize. Yes, they raised millions for Howard Dean and can claim some responsibility in having him named head of the Democratic National Committee. Some, such as blogger Markos Moulitsas, have even become party players.
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But Sen. Joe Lieberman is the only candidate so far to lose to the netroots. And political insiders offer two other caveats: Mr. Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq might have been his downfall with or without the efforts of bloggers, and Mr. Lamont could still lose to Mr. Lieberman in the general election if the latter chooses to run as an independent.

Even with the victory, many political planners continue to see the internet as little more than a funnel for campaign contributions. "Campaigns and advocacy groups still want to see the internet as a cash register," Mr. Bassik said. "Most campaigns allocated about one-tenth of 1% of their budgets in 2004, and there are no indications that that trend is going to change in 2006."

Small piece of spending pie
John Durham, founder of Pericles Communications, estimates that about $24 million was spent on online political advertising in 2004, out of a total of $1.7 billion in what was a record-breaking year -- that's less than 1.5%. He predicts that number will increase to between $50 million and $75 million in 2008. But rather than political campaigns hiring blogging experts to help them to understand and engage the netroots community, the bulk of those dollars are likely to go to e-mail campaigns, search and banner advertising, and website design.

Why? Some would say simply out of resistance to change. "This stuff scares the heck out of key political consultants, but that's because they know how big an impact bloggers can have," said Mr. Durham.

Others would point to the numbers. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, of the 73% of adults online in the U.S., only 39% are blog readers. And a study by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that only 4% of Americans say they regularly read online blogs where people discuss news events.

A simpler answer is that those e-mails and banner ads, even when they aren't 100% effective, are easier to control than blog-based, netroots type campaigns.

Doctored image
Mr. Lamont's campaign was nearly derailed when a blogger/supporter posted a doctored picture of Bill Clinton with Joe Lieberman in blackface on firedoglake.com. The owner of the blog, Jane Hamsher, took the photo down after both camps expressed displeasure with the stunt, with Mr. Lamont going so far as to claim he had little knowledge of his blog supporters.

Ernest Lendler, president of New York political consultancy Branford Communications, said he advises his clients-14 campaigns at present-to proceed online with caution. "I'd never have my candidates do a blog," Mr. Lendler said. "You have to control your message from the top down."

The Connecticut primary indicates the netroots community isn't all bark. "If Joe Lieberman had someone close to him paying attention to what was going on online, he would not be in the trouble he's in today," said political consultant Donna Brazile, who recommended Mr. Lieberman as Al Gore's running mate in 2000. "He would have started a conversation and built a relationship with his critics online."

The DNC, trying to regain power on the Hill, is certainly listening. Howard Dean, after all, was made party chair after the country watched in 2004 as his supporters harnessed the web to their advantage, proving they could raise targeted awareness (and cash) on a large scale at a fraction of the cost of TV. Mr. Dean was one of many Democratic leaders who made an appearance at the YearlyKos convention in early June, which drew more than 1,000 members of the liberal blogging community.

'Passionate conversation'
"Netroots is not about a website or fundraising," said political commentator Arianna Huffington, founder of HuffingtonPost.com. "It's an authentic and passionate conversation, and it has proven its ability to affect American politics."

Of course, the jury is still out on whether the netroots can win an election that matters while the bulk of campaign spending goes to traditional outlets.

But others are taking note. High-profile presidential contenders like Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain have both recently recruited blog advisers to help them navigate the frontier atmosphere.

Mr. McCain's case is unique in that, for any number of reasons, the Republican Party doesn't yet have a netroots analog. There are plenty of conservative bloggers, and they've collected their own set of scalps (Trent Lott, Dan Rather), but the right side of the blogosphere has yet to anoint one leader with the power of a Kos. And it doesn't seem unreasonable for the party with control of the White House, the Congress and the Senate to stay within its comfort zone.

But you can bet on one thing: Karl Rove is watching.
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