- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

Conventional political wisdom holds that identifying, energizing and mobilizing loyal voters — the vaunted political base — is the key to winning next November’s off-year congressional elections. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Howard Dean calls his party’s core constituency “Merlot Democrats,” according to media reports. Republicans, who probably prefer a label in the Pilsner variety, did some outreach as well last week, hosting their first ever “Blog Row” on Capitol Hill with members of this new communications medium.

So are they the “Google Republicans?”

Labels aside, experts agree that winning lower-turnout congressional elections in 2006 depends on effectively activating friendly voters. And Web-based political applications will play an increasingly critical role in this process. In particular, the fast-growing blog community, still evolving and somewhat unpredictable, deserves more attention and understanding by elected officials selling policies and their campaign teams trying to win elections.

Michael Barone’s recently released introduction to the “2006 Almanac of American Politics,” uses Web-politics as an organizing thesis. “American Politics in the Networking Era,” is the title of his excellent new summary of the contemporary electoral landscape. Describing the new, Web-connected environment, Mr. Barone writes that 2004 “produced a different kind of politics, a politics that reflects the character of the post-industrial, networking age we live in.”

Mr. Dean’s use of the Web grabbed most of the early attention in the 2004 presidential campaign. The former Vermont governor harnessed the Internet as both a fund-raising platform and a device to mobilize like-minded supporters. But whiletheInternet-friendly Dean campaign garnered the media attention, it was the Bush re-election effort that most effectively exploited the new technology. While many supporters were impressed that the Dean camp amassed 600,000 e-mailaddresses,Mr. Barone writes, “Few reporters at the time took note of the number of e-mail addresses the Bush campaign had collected: 6 million.” He also writes that the Bush campaign enlisted an unprecedented cadre of 1.4 million active volunteers — communicating with many as cyber precinct captains — while the DNC only recruited 233,000 people.

And the virtual campaign delivered real results. Mr. Barone reports that while Sen. John Kerry won 16 percent more votes than Al Gore did in 2000, Mr. Bush’s numbers in 2004 ballooned 23 percent compared to four years earlier.

Beyond using the Internet for fund-raising and party-based mobilization efforts, Weblogs are a fast-growing, little-understood and unpredictable part of new media politics. Political scientists Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell presented a paper at last year’s American Political Science Association convention that provides some clues about why the small number of blogs with a fraction of the readers — compared to, say newspapers — can have major political implications.

Messrs. Drezner and Farrell argue Web-based pundit power lies not in the current number of readers, but because bloggers “frame political debates and create focal points for the media as a whole. Because certain opinion-makers within the media take blogs seriously, they can have a much wider impact on politics.”

Still, blogs in general are a little unpredictable from a partisan political standpoint. On the Democratic side, the blogosphere is a haven for Bush hatred. Indeed, the most liberal popular blogs, like the Daily Kos, contain the highest-octane vitriol — the nastier the better. And it’s these same blogs that quickly turn on Democrats “selling out” through compromise and moderation — Sen. Joe Lieberman is often the victim of such attacks.

On the Republican side, while many conservative blogs were Mr. Bush’s greatest defenders during his re-election campaign, his erstwhile Web-based supporters had been divided (the majority led the charge against the Miers Supreme Court nomination). One tracking Web site (www.truthlaidbear.com) even kept a running total of bloggers “for” and “against” the Miers nomination (earlier this week the numbers were 73 percent “for,” 13 percent “neutral” and 13 percent “opposed”). Rather than being consistently pro-Republican, conservative bloggers do tend be anti-mainstream media, with last year’s infamous CBS/Dan Rather/Bush National Guard story as one of their most shining moments.

Blogs are not handmaidens of either political party. Yet, the most widely read have a clear tilt. Their readers are among the most active and influential members of the body politic, and possess a sharpened ideological edge. Recognizing where they fit into the evolving American political scene is, as Matt Drudge would say, “developing.” Certainly they represent a mainstream media sidestepping tool and a way to reach targeted constituents. But their long-term impact is still largely unknown. Whoever figures out their long-term impact may not win the financial rewards of a Google executive, but they will earn rich political dividends nonetheless.