I wrote this essay for USA Today in response to a meeting between leftbloggers and former President Bill Clinton at his Harlem headquarters. Along with my forthcoming book, BLOGWARS, it argues that blogging has “arrived” in politics today. Politicians and political professionals (as well as journalists and media workers) are “blogging up,” and trying to figure out how to use blogs in their business.

Note: One of the big differences between your own blog and writing for the mainstream press is that you get edited by the latter–something I always accept (along with a check!). So, for example, I wrote the piece just after the blog lunch, but it was not printed until now because the paper wanted to put it closer to the election, which made sense. In any case, the original is below. A few lines that were cut–mostly for reasons of length–are now restored.

How will the Clintons harness the political force of the blog?

By David D. Perlmutter

USA Today, Monday October 2, 2006

A few weeks ago, Bill Clinton went to the blogs. Now the political world may never be the same.

While blogging has caught on all over the country for would-be aldermen and sitting governors, presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton still does not blog—or at least not much. However, her husband’s two-hour lunch at his Harlem headquarters with a number of prominent leftbloggers such as Atrios, Matt Stoller from MyDD, Daily Kos’ McJoan and John Aravosis from Americablog may signal an innovative commitment to blogging for the office of commander-in-chief.

The attractions of blogging for politicians are many. Blogging directly reaches a national (and even global) audience without the filtering of the newspaper or the price of television time. Blogging, if done well, renders an aura of intimacy and personalization difficult to attain (except for “great communicators” like Clinton and Reagan) via traditional mass media. Blogging can generate a national fund-raising vortex for the local candidate, as was the case for Ned Lamont in Connecticut. Blogging is also a boon for retired politicians who are out of the public eye. John Edwards, probably the most blog-aware of the 2008 contenders, blogs and guest blogs extensively and meets regularly with bloggers while on speaking tours. (Retired General Wesley Clark is another out-of-office [or service] blog maestro via his “Securing America” site).

The disadvantages of blogging are manifest as well—perhaps most so to frontrunners. Blogging takes up time in a busy politician’s day. The stream-of-consciousness nature of the good blog post is a minefield of possible gaffes and misstatements. Bloggers and blogging audiences are high maintenance. As researchers Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Andrea B. Baker uncovered, during Howard Dean’s blogging effort in 2003-2004 the campaign found it hard to keep up with the comments by bloggers on their websites, and thus many loyalists felt abandoned or unheard. [1] And while millions blog, the actual blogger-Get-Out-the-Vote link is yet to be apparent in any particular race.

These issues dog Hillary Clinton. Ahead in name recognition (for good and bad), money and poll ratings, she has been attacked regularly by prominent leftbloggers, such as Kos , for her centrist-to-conservative (or, in the eyes of the Democratic Left, Bush-friendly) stances on issues such as the Iraq war and flag-burning. Her poll numbers are unshaken over time, but politicians and political professionals understand that wildfires on the edges of public opinion can spread to the center. [See Mystery Pollster recap on this issue.]

What, then, should be Hillary’s blog strategy? Should she have one at all?

1. Ignore the leftblogs. Hillary could do nothing with, to or about Democratic blogs, assuming that they will end up supporting her if she wins the first few primaries of the nomination season. But bloggers are not a herd to be led (by fiat or force) wherever a politician wants. Also there is the fear-and-loathing factor: George Bush and the Iraq war have spurred immense anger and mobilization in the leftblogs. It is not as clear that the 2008 Republican nominee (say John McCain) will generate as much antipathy, especially if he promises an eventual pull-out from Iraq. Nevertheless, as leftblogger Natasha “Pacific Views” Celine notes, any Republican conservative enough to win his party’s nomination will be perceived as quite threatening enough to motivate the online Democratic left. [2]

2. Attack the leftblogs. An intriguing option for Hillary Clinton is to use (or rather abuse) leftblogs to push forward her appeal to middle voters via a “Sister Souljah” moment, referring to the time in 1992 when Bill Clinton criticized the black, female rap artist. The political implication was that Clinton came off as a moderate Democrat not beholden to an “extremist” and thus was more acceptable to socio-cultural moderates and conservatives. It might be tempting, now, to dis a leftblog, preferably one that has made some heated statement about the Iraq war that is beyond the pale of mainstream American public opinion. The danger is that this is not 1992. Sister Souljah could only complain to the big media and her friends (by phone), whereas blogs can swarm the world with a mouse-click. And, if the war sinks further into chaos and U.S. military deaths, it is the current centrist position that is drifting away from mainstream opinion about the war, not that of the blogleft.

3. Co-opt the leftblogs. Clinton can—following the example of John Edwards—meet with leftbloggers, brief them, show (or feign) respect for them, make the case that she must attract a majority of the electorate and ask for leftblog help in the “crusade” to retake the White House. And, in some instances, she can buy cooperation by hiring any major blogger who will sign on as a consultant. Indeed, the Senator is building a blogger staff, hiring among others, Peter Daou, of Salon.com’s “Daou Report” and director of blog operations for John Kerry in 2004.

Hence the significance of Bill’s dine-in with the leftbloggers. Has the Clinton machine determined that the former president become the designated ambassador to the blogs? Proclaimed TalkLeft: “It was awesome,” though to many leftbloggers, affection for Bill does not transfer to Hillary, her perceived or real calculated opportunism or her policies.

How the Clintons play the blogs, or are played up or down by them, is one of the most important political stories of next few years. The 2006 and 2008 election cycles will be the coming-of-age era for political blogging and all the new, interactive, interlinking media technologies like Facebook, Youtube, podcasting and MySpace that they have inspired. The blog political playbook is now being written and will map out campaign strategies for a generation to come.

–End–

David D. Perlmutter is a professor at the School of Journalism & Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. He is author “BLOGWARS” (forthcoming, OXFORD, 2007) and blogs at policybyblog.squarespace.com.

[1] Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Andrea B. Baker. JOY AND SORROW OF INTERACTIVITY ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: BLOGS IN THE PRIMARY CAMPAIGN OF HOWARD DEAN. For publication in A. Williams & J. Tedesco (Eds.), The Internet Election: Perspectives on the Web in Campaign 2004. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[2] Email correspondence, Natasha Celine, PacificViews.

Originally posted October 2, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

One Comment

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    Original Reader Comments (16)

    I don’t think it’s fair to assume that the only two possible options for the Clintons are to: “play” (impying manipulation), or be “played by” (be manipulated by) blogs. Though not an official spokesman for blogging, I find their approach, so far, to be respectful.

    And, by all indications, the Clintons have no intention of invoking the “Sista Souljah” argument against the left-side of the blogosphere. They know it’s too valuable a resource for reaching voters (and circumventing expensive commercial TV). They would be foolish to attack any part of the blogosphere…it would simply come across as attacking free speech.

    Bill, of course, has nothing to lose–or prove–at this point, so I do think he’d make an excellent blogger.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Watts

    Hillary Clinton is in a difficult situation with bloggers, especially due to their finicky nature and tendency to write more than any respectable campaign manager can keep up with. Perlmutter’s description of them as “high maintenance” is correct and especially the importance of technology in the next presidential election.
    Though her best bet is to hire the “consultant” left blogger, thereby creating a sort of truce and mutual support system between the group and herself. Clinton will not win this election without the support or at least the neutrality of these groups, and cannot afford to have a barrage of negative blogs from the left. However, it would also be dangerous for her to solely rely on her husband’s popularity with the bloggers. Though Bill has nothing to lose, Hillary needs to make sure that they help, instead of hinder, her campaign.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Smith

    Given the public’s inability to establish a geographic location for “cyberspace,” bloggers have the ability to affect the outcome of political activity almost on an “at-will” basis (e.g. Sen. Joseph Liberman’s recent Connecticut primary defeat influenced by bloggers from the opposite coast).

    Perlmutter brings up the suggestion of Bill becoming Team Hillary’s “designated ambassador to the blogs.” Doesn’t that also suggest that Hillary, even with Peter Daou signed on as a consultant, is incapable of succeeding in the political world without Bill tagging along (or leading)?

    The fact that political play of the blogs (or vice versa) will be an important factor in future elections should be of concern to everyone, not just the Clintons. Perhaps Team Hillary’s greater concern should be more on “the Bill factor” (as pointed out in a recent New Yorker magazine article by David Remmick.).

    Then there was last Thursday, when we all saw Hillary, once again, in the position of having to defend Bill’s childish antics. Though this time his antics were public (the Fox TV interview), her pleas for forgiveness of Bubba’s actions brought back old memories of the Bill Clinton we’ve all known, and forgiven, so often.

    Michael Goodwin’s commentary in the Kansas City Star (“BILL’S SHADOW CASTS A BAD LIGHT ON HILLARY) made reference to Bill’s response in the Remmick article when asked if he saw himself as a potential negative to Hillary’s political future. Bill’s words, “Only if people thought she wouldn’t be her own person, and I don’t think that will be a problem.”

    Message to Team Hillary:
    Blogs are not a problem. They will reflect the capabilities you project.
    Bill is a problem. There is no light available for projection when you stand in someone’s shadow.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterGordo

    I think a major problem that Clinton, Edwards, McCain, and anyone else “blogging up” for the 2008 cycle is going to encounter is that from the perspective of “young voters,” say, 18-24, who are already media-/blog-savvy, is that as soon as this medium becomes incorporated by the political status quo, it loses a great deal of street-cred. I can’t cite a study right this second, but it seems fairly agreeable that when a blog post is signed “Hillary,” et al, people will not have to wonder whether this is best-light propaganda… nor do I imagine people will actually take seriously the idea that Clinton herself will have enormous input into the “Clinton ’08 Weblog.”
    The immediacy of the new technology is fascinating, but I don’t think that people will be so charmed as to be dissuaded from the likelihood that it’s just a new mode of sloganeering.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterD.Diggler

    Hillary Clinton knows what she’s doing. That’s a great strategy. Let Bill handle the blogs for the moment. She doesn’t want to deal with this right now. The Clinton’s can even create a couple strategy in which Hillary will slowly take over Bill’s number one blogger role. Hillary cannot stay in this position too long. She will have to do something to keep up with other politicians in the world of blogs. Blogs are too important of a tool to be disregarded.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Grass

    If I were Hillary, I think I would take an active interest in blogging. Like the article stated, it is a good way for her to reach her constituents and address her critics. Blogging lets her know what the American people truly are interested in and gives her an outlet to directly reach them. The downside would be what happened to Howard Dean, he simply didn’t have enough manpower to address all the blogs concerning him candidacy. This problem could be solved by following what Bill did and hire a blogging consultant. I think her chances for presidency would be greatly increased by taking advantage of this new technology.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOatmeal

    Yes, blogging is a great way to reach the masses; however, as a blogger, I don’t know if I would trust anything that I read from Hillary or any political candidate. As they fight for votes, most stay fairly neutral in regards to the issues. Blogging is to state your opinion and stand firm by your choices. As a political candidate, you don’t want to go to far to the left or right in fear of losing votes. I do think that Hillary or someone on her team should pay attention to the blogs. This is a way for Hillary to know what the public is thinking. On another note, do we even believe that Hillary has any say into what is posted? I am sure she has PR specialist all over her campaign crafting the perfect message.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersd

    Ignoring or even attacking bloggers is definitely no option for Hillary. She won’t get around them anyway and she’d better not underestimate their powers. (And also, she’d better not forget that any blogger and anyone a blogger reaches is a potential voter.)
    As Perlmutter says, it might be the “coming-of-age-era for political blogging” so Hillary should better jump on the bandwagon before it’s gone. I personally think, that blogs – even though they might be dangerous terrain – are a great chance for politicians to show how much democracy they really tolerate and how ‘close’ they are to the voters.
    So, staying out of the blogosphere would simply signalize: “We don’t take you too serious.” But rules have changed!
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJack Bauer

    I think the best possible solution for Hillary is to simply ignore the blog world. While blogging is an effective way to reach masses without leaving the confines of your home, it is still a method that is over hyped. I believe the best way to talk to someone or hear what they are saying is to see them in person, whether it be live or on television or in the newspapers. Get out there pay attention to what they are saying, and then there is no need for her to blog.

    I do get, however, that everyone cannot see Hillary in person or on television, and by simply posting a blog thousands will be satisfied. So if Hillary were to decide to blog, she would have to do it regularly and I don’t necessarily know if there is enough time to satisfy all of the bloggers.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn doe

    I guess blogging has arrived everywhere—including in politics. If the politicians are blogging, then all serious politicians should participate. If Hillary wants to appear as a solid candidate that is reachable, then she is going to have to give the public what they want. Today people want blogs. Hillary should join in, or hire her own personal blogger to do the work for her. Neither ignoring nor attacking the bloggers-just participating. For now, I think that will do but in the future more may be required. Today, I think it is in Hillary’s best interest to join in and participate.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLynda

    Are there any studies done that show how bloggers can influence voter decisions? I would guess that blog-readers tend to seek out blogs that are more aligned and reinforce their own views than trying to find a blog that may or may not enforce their favorite candidate.

    The most important issue for the Democrats to communicate, still, desparately needs to be voter turnout in the young demographic. That being said, the best strategy seems to be to work with the left-bloggers for some organized effort. If Hilary can sit down and do interviews with the bloggers, Bill can come on and answer comments, there might be enough one-on-one interaction to drive people to the polls.
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

    This sounds snide, and I appologize, but the question “what will the Clintons do about blogging” should perhaps be “what will bloggers do about the Clintons?” Or maybe: “what will the blogosphere do about ANY politician of ANY party with an odd past that can be instantly accessed and exposed for the world to see in all his/her illogical glory?” Might we see a move to naked accountability of our elected officials?! Dare I hope? Don’t tease, i’ve been hurt before.
    Harness the blogs? Only inasmuch as we harness solar power. (We can use it, but danged if I can get the flaming ball of gas to do my bidding)
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterwillyock

    If politics is all about getting the buzz going your way, then Bill Clinton’s recent “power lunch” is a page right out of the PR handbook. A cyber-version of the old politician’s summit with union bosses: call them together, feed them, complement them on the job they’re doing and work into casual conversation things you think are “important”– then sit back and watch as those messages get distributed.
    Reading the various postings on the lunch, it sounds like Clinton focused on what a great job the bloggers did at digging up dirt faster than the MSM (not a bad way to keep the digging going in your favor). And he touched on a wide range of issues including global warming, Iraq and an energy policy (providing blogger fodder for future postings).
    October 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBOWOT

    I think Hillary’s best bet would be to try and co-opt the so-called “leftblogs.” She risks a great deal by ignoring this potential voting group, and attacking them — while strategically and theoretically attractive — seems unlikely now that she has already added Bill and Daou to her payroll.

    Indeed, she seems to be embracing the potential of blogging as a medium by establishing a “Moms for Hillary” area of her site which, by all indications, is a blog in its infancy stage. It will be very interesting to see how this portion of her site develops as November 2008 approaches. Given the naturally intimate nature of blogging, one would think this could enhance the personalization of Hillary, whose cold, calculated and distant persona can get a makeover in the eyes of the public.
    October 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Colbert

    As an active reader of DailyKos, I know that Hillary would have some serious work to do should she decide to embrace the lefty blog. Her stance on the war may be enough of an issue to sink any chance she has of gaining an endorsement from Kos and the like. Also, her reputation as super-politico, driven only by political considerations rather than what she may feel in her “heart”, my actually cause more alienation and criticism should she suddenly seek the bloggers approval. Her sudden anti-flag-burning fervor was very transparent to those that have followed her career, and decidedly stupid considering that at this point, she could reveal herself as the Virgin Mary and most Republicans would still view her as, in the words of the Rev. Falwell, “worse than Satan.”
    October 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterFloydMaster

    well, but Hillary has made her way into facebook. She sent out email blasts from the information presented there and to those who are her facebook “friends”. It’s interesting because facebook can be a form of blogging in a sense. Almost like text messaging. Clearly a young intern is running her facebook site. But, this helps younger voters have access to photos from her campaign. She has posted several photo albums online.
    Hillary or someone on her staff can write “notes” which are actually just blogs. “Notes” on facebook can actually also be directly imported from a blog. Her opponent running against her also has a facebook account to which he uses pretty much every other day to post messages on her “wall” on facebook giving a top ten list of reasons why facebook users should not vote for her.
    I have not personally seen Hillary write any of these facebook users back but I haven’t looked that in-depth into it. But, most of the candidates in my state are on facebook as well. This in itself is a form of blogging. It’s interesting because facebook is in the works to be sold to google or yahoo, i think? The “notes” i spoke of earlier can be commented on like a blog and you can add photos to the notes as well. So, in that sense I think that Hillary is not completely ignoring blogging.
    I am hoping that there are some smart, young political interns who are pushing these candidates to use Facebook because it is a medium that works in one sense.
    You can even do all of your facebook “business” right from your mobile phone. So if i wanted to bash Hillary’s opponent, I can search for him through my phone and then criticize him on his “wall” or even send him a message with a simple flip and tap of my phone. I know anyone over a certain age may see Facebook as a watered down version of Myspace….making the medium itself seem distasteful. But, Facebook is actually pretty tame in comparison to MySpace or Xanga. Plus, it’s interesting, but I know that college age kids (18-23). The first site they go to….Facebook.
    November 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDoorsofperception

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