Are Blogs the New Iowa? (Redux…)

I have speculated here before on the new dimensions of political blogging. Most recent is a longer essay just published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is behind a paywall, so I reprint it here (with a few editorial revisions!):

And thanks to “doorguy” at Daily Kos for the publicity.

Political Blogs: the New Iowa? (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, p. B6)

Like many political junkies, I get my news and opinion fixes from newspapers, television, and specialty newsletters. But I also rely increasingly on blogs, the Web pages that contain both interactive, hyperlinked reportage and commentary. Such information sources are no longer curiosities. For example, Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com) — started by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who served in the U.S. Army before going to college and law school — includes contributions from a giant group of leftist, liberal, and Democratic bloggers. The Nielsen//NetRatings service reported that in the single month of July 2005, Kos attracted 4.8 million separate visitors. The Kos audience is thus greater than the combined populations of Iowa, where the first presidential caucus takes place, and New Hampshire, site of the first primary, according to the current Democratic party schedule.

It is no surprise, then, that political scientists and scholars of communication from many disciplines are asking what role blogs will play in future campaigns and elections and, more specifically, how bloggers will affect the election of our next commander in chief.

Media attention to blogging has exploded, in part because of a number of what I call blogthroughs, events that allowed bloggers to demonstrate their powers of instant response, cumulative knowledge, and relentless drumbeating. Those incidents included bloggers’ role in challenging the memo about President Bush’s National Guard service [presented] on CBS, which may have led to Dan Rather’s resignation as anchor of the network’s evening news; video logs of the tsunami in Southeast Asia; and the high-profile use of blogs by Howard Dean’s campaign for the last Democratic presidential nomination. Now, according to various measurement and rating services such as Technorati and BlogPulse, tens of millions of Americans are blogging on all kinds of subjects, like diets, relatives, pets, sports, and sex. Bloggers include journalists, marines in Afghanistan, suburban teenagers, law-school professors, senators, and district attorneys.

Of greatest interest to modern students of politics are the blogs that focus on public affairs. Mainstream political news media regularly check what blogs are saying about a given story — or how they created it. Surveys by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and other organizations have found that most contributors to those blogs follow campaigns and political debates and are extremely likely to vote in elections. Politicians and activists are naturally eager to get their message to such a target audience while also bypassing the mainstream media’s editorializing and heavy fees for advertising. Yet, as one political consultant I know put it, “The $200-million questions are: What are blogs? How can we use them? What exactly are they good for?”

Even experts cannot answer those questions because political blogs are in a state of flux. Are they a revolution or an evolution in political speech and activism — or a return to the more partisan press of the nation’s early days? Will political bloggers challenge or complement traditional politics, political work, and politicians? Are bloggers representative of other Americans, or are they a minority of politically active citizens? How much impact will blogs have on political discourse and, ultimately, on voting behavior? Are they further Balkanizing American politics, with liberals reading only leftist blogs and conservatives reading only rightist ones?

Probably the most important area for research on blogs today is what role they will have in the presidential election of 2008. A necessary starting point is to consider how similar blogs are, as a new medium or genre or venue, to traditional components of presidential politics.

Are blogs the new Iowa caucus? Since the 1970s, candidates who have done well in the presidential-nomination race have appeared early, during what the journalist Arthur Hadley called the “invisible primary.” Raising money nationwide, they spend much of it — and much time — in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But if we think of “blogland” as a place, it is the real “first in the nation” testing ground: Bloggers generally decide whom to support for president (and whom to vociferously oppose) long before states hold caucuses and primaries. Furthermore, like the residents of the small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire, who have long been accustomed to individual attention from campaigners, bloggers cannot be swayed by one-size-fits-all pitches. The essence of blogging, after all, is personal connections between participants — the ability to talk and to talk back, the interplay of argument and critique. John Edwards, former senator and vice-presidential nominee and probable presidential candidate in 2008, is pursuing such a strategy: Not only does he have his own blog (http://blog.OneAmericaCommittee.com) and post on others’ blogs, but at live speaking engagements, he often invites local bloggers to a face-to-face meeting and briefing.

But the big issue for deciding whether bloggers are like early caucus or primary voters is, to paraphrase the advertising slogan for Las Vegas, “Does what starts on the Web stay on the Web?” In other words, does blog activism go beyond cyberspace and lead to election victory?

In 2003, for example, Howard Dean’s campaign motivated hundreds of thousands of Americans via blogs and the Internet. His list of registered supporters online grew to 600,000. (A Dean worker lamented to me, “If only we could get them to move to New Hampshire!”) He seemed to have entered a new world of horizontal democracy, upsetting the old-boy, rich-man politics with events like an online fund-raising “dinner,” during which he ate a turkey sandwich while offering comments about the issues of the day and the campaign.

However, when bloggers take to the streets on behalf of their candidates, they may not be as convincing as old-fashioned political workers. More than 100,000 Dean supporters, many of them motivated young people from exotic places like Seattle and New York, flooded Iowa before the caucuses. I did not meet any there who had pierced noses or spiked hair, but young, eager folks from the coasts were not the best people to evangelize middle-class Midwesterners, even those who might agree with Dean on some issues.

Basically, the Dean campaign ignored a key political rule: You deploy supporters in their own areas. People are more apt to be convinced by people who seem like them. Dean online activism did translate into political participation of the old style, in the activists’ own states: According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, most online partisans of Dean voted in the November presidential election.

Are blogs fund-raising machines? Historically, early success in raising money has been essential to winning a major party’s presidential nomination. The Dean campaign used the Internet to get millions of people to raise small amounts of money, although Dean attracted few large donors. Before the Iowa caucus, Dean had raised at least $20-million. (Sen. John F. Kerry eventually raised about $80-million online.) On the other hand, as Dean learned, expenses like staff salaries, transportation, get-out-the-vote efforts, and — above all — television ads quickly soak up money; his campaign’s coffers were emptied within weeks.

A fund-raising strategy focusing on blogs and other online sources, however, is not always doomed to failure. Most political observers would agree that Dean lost in Iowa and New Hampshire for reasons other than cash flow. Had he been victorious in those early states, his campaign would have attracted many traditional donations, for in politics, money follows the smell of victory.

Are blog posts campaign literature? Modern presidential candidates write books, make speeches, participate in debates, and hold press conferences. But their books are little read, even by loyal followers, and their other writings and discourses are mainly vehicles to deliver the seven-second sound bite that their media consultants hope will be picked up by television news.

Furthermore, most of the material that candidates present, from speeches to debate points and even personal letters, is concocted by professional speechwriters, consultants, and members of the campaign staff. Such in-house plagiarism is not considered unethical; every candidate does it. There is some cynicism about this process, but not even the most antagonistic and aggressive reporter will demand of a candidate: “Weren’t those remarks written by your speechwriter? How dare you pretend the words are yours?”

Blogs have a different sort of audience. Blog readers go through entire posts carefully, especially those of politicians; they don’t just glance at the main headings. And readers demand authenticity. Woe to the candidate whose supposedly first-person blog is outed as a prepackaged set of talking points, created by committee. In short, bloggers — including the people who create the blogs, the people who post on them, and the people who read them regularly — are less an audience or a readership than a community of debaters. It follows that they probably don’t want any part of their interaction with a candidate to be (or even to seem) programmed. A further challenge is time: Editing a blog, creating new material day after day, or even hour after hour to keep up with breaking news, is a considerable commitment.

Are blogs “meet the candidate” get-togethers? Politicians have private briefings, talks, and discussions with staff members, party leaders, donors, friends, relatives, and even sympathetic journalists. Blog posts can mimic such intimate encounters for a broader group. However, making public your stream-of-consciousness thoughts on issues of the day, your favorite restaurants, the proper role of parents, and so forth can give your enemies a lot of free ammunition. An old political rule is that the more you say, the more evidence there is with which to hang you.

Obviously candidates and their staffs have worried about that problem, and the result has often been dull blogs, with just as many layers of editing and focus-group testing for entries as for the average speech. Yet the more controlled or canned a blog sounds, the less it feels like a blog.

Are bloggers political operatives? In the 2004 South Dakota race for U.S. Senate between Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican John Thune, two prominent local bloggers who had attacked the incumbent Democrat turned out to have been given money by the Thune campaign. The payments to the pair were not revealed until after the election, when campaign-finance documents were filed. The effect of such hit-blogs cannot be easily measured, but South Dakota is a lightly populated state, and Thune won by only about 4,500 votes.

So yes, campaigns can use bloggers as paid operatives or subsidized supporters. But the sheer number of political bloggers suggests that it would be very hard to buy up even a small part of blogland that way. Indeed, subsidies are the subject of much mirth among bloggers. The editor of Righting Wisconsin jokes with his readers — that is, I think he is joking — “If you want me to keep my mouth shut, it’s gonna cost you some dough. I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable, so I want two” (a quote from the movie Miller’s Crossing).

Furthermore, although bloggers can be a loyal constituency, they are not an unswerving one. When Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, publicly compared the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with that meted out by the Nazis, left-wing bloggers rallied to his defense. He even met with a group of them to get advice. Yet, when he decided to take the politician’s customary recourse of apologizing for the remarks, some of those bloggers turned on him, condemning him as a sellout and a fraud.

Are blogs campaign rallies? Bloggers tend to be passionate, idealistic about their politics, and unforgiving of the gamesmanship, opinion flopping, yielding to expediency, and compromise that are part of normal politics.

In February Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, had the largest war chest, the greatest name recognition, and the highest national-poll ratings of any Democrat expected to run for president in 2008. She is, however, faring poorly on leftist blogs because she has consistently tried to steer a middle course in her policies, presumably to win swing voters. Of course, politicians have always needed to balance between their party’s base and the middle of the electorate. But blogs make this tension if not more complicated, at least more public. You can’t pack cyberspace with your supporters, shut out all hecklers, and enforce message discipline.

Are blogs television ads? The 30-second candidate is alive and well; television and the enormous cost of advertising on it will be part of any presidential campaign for the foreseeable future. But blogs offer advantages over the tube. Ads and videos on blogs are not (yet) covered by campaign-reform rules. Blogs and vlogs can test-market a TV video but can also provide an instant response to opponents’ attacks without the usual delays of regular media.

Of course, if bloggers don’t like a candidate’s TV messages, they will say so. Dean bloggers, for instance, expressed their exasperation online when that campaign sputtered. And the bloggers’ criticism can easily become fodder for negative coverage in the traditional media.

Comparing political blogs to political television is especially interesting because blogs are arguably part of the evolution of television from a mass to a niche medium. I tell students that successful mass communication is that which best approximates successful interpersonal communication. Great communicators are able to deliver personal and empathetic messages to large audiences.

In my studies of blogging, I have found that the personal factor is also key for bloggers who build loyal audiences. My students, for instance, report that they prefer blogs whose editors they most like, respect, and trust. That relationship is built not on a single post but gradually, over time.

Are blogs talk radio? Many political insiders would say yes. Bloggers can be attack dogs of the right or left, harping on an issue until it reaches prominence, raising ire in their audience. But they can also provide more reasoned debates. When Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, posted on various sites — including Daily Kos — a long defense of Democrats who had voted to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice (even though Obama himself had voted against confirmation), it was the talk of liberal cyberspace for weeks, the subject of tens of thousands of posts, comments, and debates.

But are bloggers like the host of a talk-radio show, the people who call in, or the listening audience? The term “blogger” is often employed to mean a blog’s owner, as well as other posters to the blog and its regular readers. Are those groups the same, though, demographically or psychologically? Do they have, for example, similar levels of commitment to a political position or an issue? That is a compelling question because research on voting behavior has shown that the higher the level of commitment you have to an idea, cause, issue, or candidate, the less likely you are to be swayed by arguments from the other side. Blogs then may not be as good at changing people’s minds as they are at focusing attention on an issue and rallying support.

So far, only a few of the two dozen or so probable and possible Democratic candidates for president in 2008 have their own blogs or contribute regularly to others’ blogs: Sen. Evan Bayh, of Indiana; Wesley Clark, the retired general who ran for president in 2004; Hillary Clinton; John Edwards; Sen. Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin; Barack Obama; and Gov. Tom Vilsack, of Iowa. Blogging Republicans who may become candidates include Sen. Bill Frist, of Tennessee, and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House.

It is interesting how thin the blogs of the would-be presidents are in quantity and quality. Edwards, a prolific blogger and flesh-presser of other bloggers, is almost the only potential candidate to fully dive into the medium. That may be partly because, as was the case with Howard Dean in 2003, he has no place else to go: No longer in the Senate himself, he is not as much in the public eye as many of his likely opponents. His nascent campaign may be a good test case of what blog outreach can do for a candidate.

Of course, for all their potential minefields, blogs may be a much safer place for a politician than elected office. Members of Congress are faced with voting on contentious issues like appropriations for the war in Iraq; often, whatever they do earns them enemies. Edwards can now portray himself as a populist outsider — a role he plainly relishes.

One can imagine why other candidates would avoid blogs. For example, should a front-runner with much to lose risk blogging? Hillary Clinton has participated in the American Cancer Society’s Blog for Hope, but her comments are very safely worded and read more like press releases than real posts. Would it make more sense for her to post a blog entry that might not get any big-media attention, or to give a $2,000-a-plate speech that will be picked up by network television? Besides the money, an added appeal to the speech is that her staff can control the crowd to a great extent, guaranteeing a friendly response; that is not possible on blogs.

The instant interaction that blogs encourage can be hazardous for a politician. As a case in point, Wesley Clark’s lively group blog features posts by him and those who register for the site. A live chat with Clark in December allowed participants to ask him questions on many topics, including the Iraq war, blogging, government wiretapping, U.S. relations with Serbia … and UFO’s. The general responded to one lengthy post about space aliens with the terse comment that he had “never been briefed” on their supposed landing in Roswell, N.M.

Clark gave direct, if careful, answers to some questions. But sometimes he did not reply at all, presumably because the queries were coming too fast, were too complicated for a quick response, were too politically dangerous to take a position on, or were posted by someone obviously trying to pull his leg. Would any candidate be able to respond at length and in depth without producing inaccuracies and gaffes that would delight his or her opponents? Are the benefits of blogging worth the risks and efforts?

Ours is an exciting era for students of politics and an unnerving time for political professionals, whose tried-and-true strategies are coming under increasing challenge with evolving technology. Clearly blogs are both similar to and unlike many other types of political media. Nevertheless, at this point, any pronouncements about the power of blogs and the potential directions of political blogging would be as foolish as similar prognostications about the trajectory of television news in 1952. One thing is certain: Blogging is now part of political campaigns, elections, and public-affairs debates; although the future is unknown, it will not be unblogged.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies & research at the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications of the University of Kansas.

Originally posted June 2, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (3)

    I recently posted a response to your article suggesting that looking at Presidential elections, which are already exhaustively covered by traditional media the worst place in the world to look for blog impact. Instead, blogs have a bigger impact on races less well covered by the traditional media.
    June 6, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterohwilleke

    Hi: My article was about blogging and the presidential race, but indeed one point I will make in my book is that the “fringes” of blogging (just like in real world physical evolution) is where the really innovative stuff is going on—as many posts here attest.

    In general, Government, it is said, is run by the people who show up. But most of us do not really pay attention to what government is doing–or doing to us–until it immediately impacts our lives, unless good journalists call attention to issues that should concern us, whether down the street or halfway around the world. While, as said, it is a stereotype that blogs, bloggers, and blogging are obsessed with “sexy” or high-profile issues–war and peace, abortion, media bias, and so on–there are many other bloggers who focus on issues of practical and local importance. Take Bill Callahan of Cleveland, who blogs Callahan’s Cleveland Diary (cleveland_diary.blogspot.com). Many of his posts concern city politics and city planning issues. A lot of his content is clearly written and wittily observed, but you won’t see it being argued about on The O’Reilly Factor, or burning up the threads at Daily Kos or freerepublic. Although not headline material, the items and his analysis are important to people’s daily lives. In other words, it is what used to be called “hard news” and non-herd journalism where “undiscussed issues” are scrutinized. Take one recent unsensational item about “abandoning neighborhood retail strips.”
    June 12, 2006 | Registered Commenterdavid.d.perlmutter

    ”How much impact will blogs have on political discourse and, ultimately, on voting behavior? Are they further Balkanizing American politics, with liberals reading only leftist blogs and conservatives reading only rightist ones?”

    You’ve ceded ‘conservativism’ to the right wing. That’s they way the ‘right’ would like it but that’s not the way the blog world is divided. Most ‘conservatives’ still believe in sweet reasonableness, finding out what’s behind opposing opinion, and finding compromise on common ground. The ‘right’ of the blog world is like the Republican Congress’s treatment of Democrats, ‘We won, we run things, we don’t care what you think.’ That’s not ‘conservative.’ As a result, most ‘conservatives,’ to the extent they are ‘conservative,’ are found writing and commenting on ‘left’ blogs.
    June 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterYashu

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