Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball
http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/itw2007081601/
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UNTANGLING THE NETROOTS


The group gathered in the Chicago McCormick Place Convention Center was not the usual audience for a presidential debate. While the Democratic candidates for president may not have fully realized this as they strode onstage, it didn't take long for the crowd to impress that fact upon them. As the candidates were introduced, it was noted that hometown Senator Barack Obama was celebrating his 46th birthday. The audience proceeded to do what seemed most natural: breaking out into song, singing a disjointed "Happy Birthday, dear Barack."

Who are these irreverent and raucous spectators? They are, of course, the Kossacks; liberal bloggers who frequent the internet site Daily Kos (named after its founder, Markos Moulitsas), and assemble annually to celebrate the successes of the "netroots" (a hybrid formed from "internet" and "grassroots") and meet each other face to face. They pride themselves on making politics a two-way street, hence the singing of "Happy Birthday" and an abundance of shouted comments throughout the candidate forum. They call this "people powered politics" and they wager that it will change the political landscape, making it both more democratic and more Democratic. This year's Yearly Kos convention was only the second iteration, but already they have proven their political worth. Attracting seven of the eight Democratic candidates for president (only Senator Joe Biden did not attend) is no small feat, and convincing them to attend a debate-like "forum" as well as individual, intimate "breakout sessions" is a demonstration of just how powerful this group is in the eyes of the candidates.

There is no question that the presidential candidates, and increasingly the "mainstream media" the netroots rail against, think these Kossacks are politically important. But is that actually the case? Many, both within and outside the movement, credit the Kossacks and their allies with being one major force behind the Democrats retaking the Senate in 2006. In particular, they point to the victories of Jon Tester and Jim Webb, two candidates who were at first spurned by the traditional Democratic powers-that-be before being thrust into the spotlight by websites like the Daily Kos.

The true power of the bloggers is twofold. First, they serve as an "echo chamber", making the internet a Democratic antidote to the Republican weapon of talk radio. Liberal bloggers consistently search for the worst Republican behavior and then harp on it endlessly, either causing the mainstream media (or in Kossack parlance, the MSM) to cover the scandal or at least increasing the number of voters who become aware of it through shear proliferation on the internet. This being the first federal election cycle since the "macaca" and Foley scandals, both of which were first revealed on the internet, it would be foolish to discount this important role. Any candidate that curries the favor of the netroots will have this machine turned against his opponent--and perhaps also have any missteps of his own benevolently overlooked.

The second real power of the blogosphere is its fundraising potential. While bloggers are often dismissed as 20-something college grads who still live in their parents' basements, this characterization is not only unfair, but inaccurate. A 2004 demographic survey showed that more than two-thirds of Daily Kos readers were over 30 years old, and half of those readers were over 40. In addition, more than half came from families with an income of over $60,000 and over a third came from families that made more than $90,000 a year. Accepting, then, that many bloggers are actually middle-aged and at least middle-class, it is clear that they have plenty to donate to their favorite causes. The same survey backs this assumption up as well, showing that a full 63 percent of readers had, at one time or another, donated money to a cause that advertised on Daily Kos.

A great example of this is the sudden success of Act Blue. Act Blue is a website that allows anyone with a credit card to donate online to almost any Democratic candidate, even down to the state legislative level. How successful is Act Blue? Since launching months before the conclusion of the presidential race in 2004, Act Blue has raised over $25 million. In the 2006 elections alone, it funneled over $16 million to Democratic candidates, and halfway through the off-year of 2007, they have already raised another $7 million. John Edwards has raised over $3 million on the site, due in large part to his decision to have all online donations to his campaign redirect to his Act Blue page. Still the grand total is an impressive sum; more than John McCain's entire campaign had on hand at the end of the last quarter. Better yet, this money comes from a primarily brand-new group of small-dollar donors, with the median donation in July only $27.50. The bloggers, and their readers, are not all wealthy tycoons who can max out on $2,300 donations to their favored candidates, but through the power of aggregation, they have a very significant effect.

If this group wields so much power, then the question becomes, which Democratic candidate can best harness it? All of the candidates are fighting tooth and nail for the title of "netroots' favorite," hiring "new media directors" and official campaign bloggers. Their task is made more formidable since the traditional metrics of fundraising and national poll results do not seem to translate easily into netroots support. Daily Kos takes a monthly straw poll of its users and John Edwards has come in first every month this year, while Hillary Clinton has yet to break into double digits since the poll began in January 2006. Clinton's campaign has been very successful in positioning her atop the national polls, but she has been clearly relegated to second-tier status online.

Daily Kos Monthly Straw Poll (all numbers in percent)

Candidate 7/07 6/07 5/07 4/07 3/07 2/07 1/07
Edwards 36 40 39 42 38 26 35
Obama 27 22 24 25 26 25 28
H. Clinton 9 6 6 3 3 4 4
Other 7 9 6 5 9 8
Richardson 6 5 8 13 8 6 5
No Clue 5 7 7 5 8 6
Kucinich 4 3 2 2 2 4
Gravel 1 1 3 0 0 0 0
Dodd 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
Biden 0 0 0 0 1 0 1

Clinton trails once again, when examining the online fundraising site most preferred by the netroots. Even excluding the amount raised by the campaigns themselves and funneled through Act Blue, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich are the top recipients on that site. The website had over 7,500 donors in July alone, but only 29 donors have ever givento Hillary Clinton through Act Blue, while Richardson and Obama have around 200 donors each, and Kucinich and Edwards have roughly 1,000 donors each (again discounting money raised by the campaign itself).

Act Blue fundraising (excludes donations from the candidate's campaign website)

Candidate Raised Donors Campaign uses Act Blue?
Richardson $132,470 171 Yes, exclusively
Edwards $109,125 1,297 Yes, exclusively
Kucinich $35,004 965 No
Obama $11,903 204 Yes, not exclusively
Gravel $2,207 47 No
H. Clinton $1,178 29 No
Dodd $1,045 12 No
Biden $595 16 No

Does Clinton's weakness with bloggers hint at some yet-unveiled vulnerability, or is it merely an anomaly caused by the demographics and ideology of the blogosphere? As the Washington Post noted last week (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/05/AR2007080501580_pf.html), bloggers are mostly white and male, two demographic groups where Clinton underperforms compared to the electorate as a whole (the Crystal Ball examined this subject in depth earlier: http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/FRC2007080901). Kossacks also are likely wealthier and more educated than the public as a whole (two other groups that seem to look down on Hillary), as demonstrated by their access to and acceptance of the internet. Most Kossacks are unabashedly liberal, which again may account for the lack of enthusiasm surrounding Hillary's candidacy. She is viewed by many bloggers as a Washington insider, the equivalent of a scarlet letter for the egalitarian Kossacks, and her husband's moderate DLC ties are a common sticking point for liberals. Senator Clinton is also seen as the 'machine' choice-the machine consisting of the Clinton Establishment from the 1990s, from the officeholders to the lobbyists to the campaign consultants dying to get back into the corridors of money and power. Although the average primary voter will be undoubtedly less white and less male than the average Kossack (since women voters outnumbered men in every early state Democratic primary in 2004 and almost half of South Carolina Democratic primary voters in 2004 were African-American), the average primary voter might be just as liberal. Primary contests are the battlegrounds of each party's most ardent supporters and, often, most extreme ideologues. If Clinton's lack of support in the netroots is due to ideology and not demographics, then the blogs could serve as a canary in the coal mine, warning of potential electoral disappointment.

The question many attentive readers will have wondered by now is whether Republicans have similar internet interests. The short answer is "no." Yes, Republicans write blogs too, comprising a group often called the Rightroots to contrast it with the liberal netroots (this distinction was noted by William Safire last November: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/magazine/19wwln_safire.html?ex=1187323200), but they have no single online community to approximate Daily Kos and no fundraising vehicle to approximate Act Blue. Conservative bloggers, from Erick Erickson to Michelle Malkin, are well known and widely read, but they have yet to unite in any especially influential way and they certainly don't have the pull to cause the GOP's presidential candidate to court them in person. Even if they did have the pull, there is no truly analogous gathering to the Yearly Kos where the candidates could appear. ABC PAC, the closest thing Republicans have to Act Blue, has raised a pitiful total of $385 for Republican presidential candidates thus far, but promises a revamped version to debut this fall. Simply put, Republicans have yet to harness the power and promise of the internet in the same way Democrats have. The fault doesn't necessarily lie with the Republican Party however, as the netroots were built by individual candidates and bloggers who were at first ignored, or even outright spurned, by the Democratic establishment and the DNC.

The bottom line, for the 2008 election season at least, is that the Democrats will have home-field advantage on the web. The netroots have built a formidable organization of websites, ranging from Daily Kos to Act Blue, with liberal havens like MoveOn.org and MyDD along the way. Democratic candidates, though, can't just expect the bloggers to simply throw their support behind the supposed frontrunner. Kossacks and their liberal blogger brethren expect to be treated with respect and deference, and they have already begun their up-close evaluations of each candidate. Even though bloggers certainly don't represent the primary electorate perfectly, they will still have a major impact as their donations and echo chamber effects resonate across the web and spill over into the "real world" of the campaigns.



As the summer nears its end, the Crystal Ball staff would like to extend a special thank you to its top-notch interns from the summer semester for their hard work and dedication: Brandon Gould, Julie Hatchett, Sarah Qureshi and Paul Wiley.

Post date: 2007-08-16 00:00:00
Post date GMT: 1970-01-01 04:59:59


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