University Series

Blogging and Elections

The Robert M. Batscha University Seminar Series

Tuesday, November 28, 2006
6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern
3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Pacific

The 2006-2007 Robert M. Batscha University Seminar Series is generously funded by Dick Wolf.

Additional support provided by the Park Foundation, Inc.

Satellite transmission is provided by GlobeCast.
Satellite time is provided by PanAmSat Corporation.

The Bush-Kerry presidential race of 2004 was a landmark event for political bloggers, who gained credibility when they were credentialed at major-party conventions and played key roles in breaking, sustaining, or undermining crucial campaign stories like the Swift Boat Veterans' roasting of John Kerry and the tarnished CBS News report on George Bush's Vietnam service. The major parties and their candidates set up blogs of their own-most notably Howard Dean, whose candidacy was initially fueled by grassroots online initiatives and ultimately sabotaged by the Internet's obsession with the infamous "Dean Scream."

Now, two years later, political bloggers appear to have evolved into an even more potent force, playing a key role elections like the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut between incumbent Joseph Lieberman and challenger Ned Lamont ("In Connecticut, Bloggers Throw Political Curves And Spitballs"), gaining widespread attention from the mainstream media, and drawing leading Democratic candidates and party officials to a blogging convention in June ("Politicians Embrace Bloggers, Not Personal Attacks"). Recapping that confab, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times writes: "If there is an emerging consensus among much of the Democratic Party establishment, it is that blogs are an important, potentially crucial emerging power in American politics"

In September, PBS's NOW aired "Blog the Vote," a program exploring the impact of bloggers on the 2006 midterm elections. Go to NOW's website for perspectives from two of the country's best-known political bloggers: Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish.

August 4, 2006

In Connecticut, Bloggers Throw Political Curves And Spitballs


Senator Joseph I. Lieberman was on a roll, skewering Ned Lamont, his wealthy antiwar opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary in Connecticut, for owning stock in the military contractor Halliburton. But within days, Mr. Lieberman was having to explain his own investments.

An online blog called Firedoglake revealed that Mr. Lieberman owned shares in mutual funds that held Halliburton stock. Other blogs latched onto the July 20 item, Lamont aides alerted reporters and soon it had found its way into local newspapers, tempering Mr. Lieberman's attack.

This was one example of how the Lamont campaign tried to harness the energy, anger and muckraking zeal of an expanding network of blogs in its effort to unseat Mr. Lieberman, the three-term senator. Dozens of liberal and antiwar bloggers, some of them from across the country but many others in Connecticut, have rallied to Mr. Lamont's cause. In their blogs-a frequent publication of personal thoughts and Web links, often done chronologically-they file daily posts attacking, investigating or just tweaking Mr. Lieberman while spreading a pro-Lamont message.

And Mr. Lamont has tried to make the most of their embrace. His Web site links to 17 friendly blogs, and his consultants communicate daily with as many as 150 bloggers who offer advice, pass on intelligence, encourage campaign contributions and sometimes leave their computers long enough to pester Mr. Lieberman at campaign events.

But the results for Mr. Lamont have not always been what his campaign would have wanted. This week, the blogger who broke the news of Mr. Lieberman's Halliburton stock posted a doctored image of the senator in blackface on The Huffington Post, stirring an outcry and prompting an embarrassed Lamont campaign to ask her to remove it. Lieberman supporters seized on the image, pointing out that the blogger, Jane Hamsher, has been closely involved in the Lamont campaign, even driving the campaign manager on Monday to New York for Mr. Lamont's appearance on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central.

This blogging exemplified the risks posed by what has become the new frontier in campaign warfare. Yesterday, the Daily Kos blog, which supports Mr. Lamont, contained numerous comments about the blackface incident, including a complaint about how well-intentioned bloggers can disrupt a campaign.

The message said: "We need folks to talk, on message, to voters. It's not glamorous, but it's important. Unfortunately, blogging is sort of becoming a way for these somewhat lazy people to think they can join in on defining a campaign's message."

For all the pros and cons, the influence of bloggers has become such an article of faith that most serious candidates hire consultants to create blogs and coordinate with other bloggers. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York recently hired Peter Daou, who worked for Senator John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, as a "blog adviser to facilitate and expand her relationship" with the blogging community, as Mr. Daou described it on his own blog, The Daou Report.

Mr. Lieberman's campaign has never had a major blogging component, and it seems to have been blindsided by the vehemence of the blogger juggernaut. A former Lieberman aide now volunteering for the campaign, Dan Gerstein, helped create a pro-Lieberman blog, and last month the senator's campaign created an anti-Lamont Web site,, that contains criticisms of Mr. Lamont.

In coalescing around a political neophyte like the 52-year-old Mr. Lamont, liberal bloggers, some of whom cut their teeth on Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004, are channeling anger over the Iraq war, President Bush and Republican control of Congress into an attack on Mr. Lieberman, 64, who has been relentlessly caricatured as an embodiment of the Washington establishment.

While the blogger uprising has clearly helped throw the Lieberman campaign off balance, its ultimate role in deciding the primary is far from certain. The bloggers are mostly amplifying grievances that threatened Mr. Lieberman long before the appearance of online detractors with names like Spazeboy and Nedheads.

It is not clear how many voters in Connecticut pay attention to the bloggers' efforts. Web traffic statistics showed that on a recent Monday afternoon, only one out of 100 visitors to Firedoglake, one of the bigger national blogs following the primary, was from Connecticut. The bulk of visitors to several other pro-Lamont blogs based in Connecticut are also from outside the state, the statistics showed.

"My sense is that most people in Connecticut today don't know what a blog is," said Ms. Hamsher, the founder of Firedoglake who is also an author and the producer of Hollywood movies like "Natural Born Killers."

Ms. Hamsher, 47, who now spends most of her time running her blog, is in Connecticut for the summer and has become a visible presence on the Lamont campaign trail. Tuesday, she posted an apology on Firedoglake for the blackface image, and took a swipe at the Lieberman campaign for "mustering their own faux indignation" to distract from his poor showing in the polls.

In an interview, she said national bloggers like her acted independently of the Lamont campaign and were merely augmenting, and giving a wider audience to, what the Connecticut bloggers were already doing.

"The local bloggers are longtime political activists in the state, some of them local committee people," Ms. Hamsher said. "They blog as a way to express what they've been doing for a long time, anyway. For them, it's like a cafe. It brings them together."

In doing so, the bloggers have emerged as an important, if unofficial, source of opposition research and creative thinking for the Lamont campaign.

After Mr. Lieberman announced that he would run as an independent candidate in the general election if he lost next week's primary, some bloggers began calling that decision an "insurance policy against democracy," a phrase the Lamont camp seized on.

This week, shortly before Mr. Lieberman was scheduled to appear at a protest against Wal-Mart, a local blogger reported that the retail chain's political action committee had sent a $1,000 campaign contribution to Mr. Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman's campaign said he did not accept the money.

And an iconic image of the campaign-that of President Bush embracing Mr. Lieberman-first gained currency on blogs, and now appears as a larger-than-life papier-mch float that frequently haunts Lieberman campaign events. The float, along with doctored images of Mr. Lieberman as a clown, half-naked or brazenly kissing President Bush, pushes the boundaries of taste and has sparked criticism in some quarters.

Mr. Gerstein complained that for all the reasoned arguments by some bloggers, too many resort to crude humor and angry diatribes that "don't pass the maturity test."

"Too much of what passes for political commentary in the blogosphere is pretty juvenile and petulant, and that's not the way you persuade people," he said. "If the blogging community is going to have a real impact, they're going to have to have a reckoning soon about their place in the real political world, because in that world there's a caricature of them as being dominated by crazies."

Bloggers involved in the Lamont campaign rejected that characterization, saying they are responsible citizens, attending college or working as real estate agents, teachers and computer programmers. Some expressed concern, however, that the pilgrimage of prominent national bloggers to Connecticut could leave an impression that the buzz surrounding Mr. Lamont is being stoked by outsiders, something they insisted was not true.

Even before the national bloggers arrived, about a half-dozen Connecticut bloggers supporting Mr. Lamont began gathering at cafes and bars to exchange ideas, offer tips about posting high-quality video and report on their campaign activities. Often, they are joined by Tim Tagaris, who works as the Internet communications director for the Lamont campaign.

"Before this race even began, there was space for this to emerge-there were writers and thinkers online and people who were already engaged," Mr. Tagaris said in an interview. "They found a voice, the national bloggers linked to the local bloggers, and they linked to the reality on the ground."

In some ways, the bloggers serve as an informal focus group. At one party, Mr. Tagaris asked a group of bloggers, some of whom had volunteered on Lamont phone banks, what they were hearing from voters.

"Well," replied Maura Keaney, a public school teacher, "on the phone banks people will ask about him being rich, but as soon as I tell them he volunteered at a public high school, they're O.K."

Copyright 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

June 11, 2006

Politicians Embrace Bloggers, Not Personal Attacks


LAS VEGAS, June 10

Mark R. Warner, the former governor of Virginia and potential Democratic presidential candidate, went before an unconventional political audience on Saturday-a bloggers' convention-and offered a fairly conventional presentation: the introductory campaign video, a few jokes, and 30 minutes of biography, criticism of the Bush administration and views of government.

Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, took a different approach, celebrating the bloggers as the future of American politics. ''We have a whole new department at the D.N.C.-the Internet department,'' he said. ''What they do is read you all day long so they know what's going on.''

Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a Democrat who also may run for president, praised blogs as an emerging power in American politics after appearing at a panel here, but assailed a major liberal blog, Daily Kos, for ''banging away'' with personal attacks on political leaders.

''I'm not the enemy-I'm a pretty decent guy, if I say so myself,'' Mr. Vilsack told reporters.

If there is an emerging consensus among much of the Democratic Party establishment, it is that blogs are an important, potentially crucial emerging power in American politics, as reflected by the turnout of Democratic leaders here this weekend. What is less clear is how mainstream politicians like Mr. Warner-or the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who was scheduled to address them Saturday night-will grapple with an audience that has defined itself in part by its dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians.

Indeed, there was evidence of a gulf in the way the two sides view their relationship. For the 1,000 or so bloggers at the YearlyKos Convention here, the mission is nothing short of trying to transform the way politics are done. For some of the political leaders who stopped off for a quick panel or reception, the visits seemed more along the lines of another constituent box to be checked on the campaign circuit, whose value does not extend beyond its checkbook or voter turnout operations.

Steve Soto, who writes The Left Coaster blog, said that the Democratic leaders running the campaigns to win the House and Senate ''are still treating the blogs and some of the advice from them about message and focus as unwanted solicitations from crazy relatives.''

Mr. Warner, in an interview, said: ''Some consultants are still stuck in a 2004 mindset-they still think, 'Is this just a new way to raise some money over the Internet?' This community absolutely resents that. They absolutely see themselves as ideas, energy, and they want to be part of the debate.''

This is, of course, awkward territory to all of the players who turned up for this unlikely meeting at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Part of the reason for this is the cultural divisions that have been highlighted by the emergence of what Democrats have come to call the blogger community. And part of it is that no one is sure if bloggers will prove to be as important to American politics as they think they will be.

So it was that Mr. Reid, in an interview, said it was still too soon to measure how much sway bloggers will have in setting the agenda for Democrats. But he flew here to deliver the closing speech at the convention on Saturday, urging bloggers to help Democrats in Washington, and said he would have done that even if the convention had not been taking place in his home state.

''We don't have a bully pulpit, but we have you,'' he said in remarks prepared for delivery that night. ''We need you to be our megaphone.''

''There is an urban myth in Washington that Democrats don't stand for anything. Like all urban myths, it couldn't be further from the truth,'' Mr. Reid said. ''This summer we need you to break it.''

Similarly, Mr. Dean, who was elected party leader in part because of his support in this world, was effusive in his praise of bloggers. ''Thank you as a group for coming to my defense every time some politician stands up and says, 'We ought to do it the old way,' '' he said. ''You guys are the best. The Washington politicians are coming around.''

Mr. Vilsack, who flew in to appear on an education panel, said what was taking place this weekend was the discovery by Democrats of the next technological wave in American politics, and he compared it to how Republicans spotted the power of direct mail in the early 1980's. But talking to reporters, he criticized blogs for making personal attacks, noting criticism of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, led by Mr. Vilsack.

''It's important for the focus to be on the policies and the politics, but not on the personalities,'' he said. ''Daily Kos banging away at the D.L.C.-we don't need to do that.''

With Mr. Warner, the audience here got a glimpse of something that many of them had presumably never seen before: a classic campaign stump speech, one that Mr. Warner, with some adjustments, might have given to any audience. There were some long periods of quiet as he spoke, but those ended as soon as he began attacking President Bush, and Mr. Warner won a standing ovation.

In the interview, Mr. Warner left little doubt of the potential he sees with bloggers, saying, ''You're watching what potentially could be a major part of the future of American politics taking place right here.''

Asked if he thought some of his prospective rivals-like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York-had made a mistake by not coming here (she cited a scheduling conflict), Mr. Warner paused before declining to answer. ''Do I look like a fool?'' he asked with a smile.

Copyright 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.