WASHINGTON -- Everyone remembers the CBS forged memo scandal. The apex brand in news magazines (yes, I know it was 60 Minutes II, but still) was brought down by the blogosphere. But there was another New Media coup shortly before that which was at least as crucial a turning point in the 2004 election.
Bill Clinton had just gone into the hospital for heart surgery. President George W. Bush delivered a speech in Wisconsin in which he offered kind thoughts and prayers for the former president. At which point, according to the Associated Press, "Bush's audience of thousands in West Allis, Wis., booed." Even worse, "Bush did nothing to stop them."
Recall at the time, the Democrats were experiencing a boomlet of success with their "Republicans are mean" meme. The Republican National Convention had just wrapped up and Democrats were spinning Sen. Zell Miller and Vice President Dick Cheney's speeches as too harsh and personally destructive of John Kerry. Meanwhile, the media backlash against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was in full flower. Now this; hateful Republicans booing an ailing former-president for the crime of being a Democrat.
Only it never happened. And within minutes, audio clips of the speech popped up on blog after blog proving the "Republicans booed Clinton" story was a fabrication. Within hours news vehicles were running the following correction: NOTE: This is a correction to an incorrect story posted by AP on Friday stating the crowd booed the President when he sent his good wishes. The crowd, in fact, did NOT boo. Bush crisis averted.
So much has been written about the battle between the New Media and the Old Media, but not enough has been written about the extraordinary value blogs offer political campaigns. Indeed, not having a deep and wide relationship with the blogosphere in the modern political environment is roughly equivalent to not running campaign ads.
A national campaign (or high-profile down-ticket campaign) without a detailed, goal oriented, and well-executed blog strategy cannot win in today's environment. Any campaign that seeks to work within the old-style news cycle is doomed to failure. Cable news may have created the 24-hour news cycle, but blogs have destroyed the news cycle altogether. No news cycle exists, only one contiguous conversation being conducted through millions of PC's at every moment of every day. Choose not to be part of that conversation and your campaign is doomed.
AND BLOGS ARE NOT JUST GOOD for defusing negative stories. They can be a valuable vote-getting tool as well. Indeed, I posit that in the modern political environment, blogs and Internet marketing are more consequential than advertising. This sounds crazy on the surface. But consider John Kerry and George W. Bush spent roughly the same amount of money on campaign ads for roughly the same length of time saying roughly the exact opposite things. Given the closeness of the race, to say nothing of the closeness of the 2000 election, it seems clear that unless one campaign vastly out spends another, campaign ads allow you to battle to a draw. Quality advertising represents a barrier to entry into the world of electoral legitimacy, but it does not dictate victory or defeat.
The Bush campaign recognized this and re-heralded in a new era of grassroots retail politicking. Through a detailed micro-targeting effort, the Bush campaign exercised Abraham Lincoln's dictum: "Divide the county into small districts, and appoint in each a sub-committee to make a perfect list of voters and ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote and on election day see that every Whig is brought to the polls." The Bush campaign identified people into small districts, all right, but these were virtual districts. Instead of targeting geographic neighborhoods, the Bush campaign targeted neighborhoods of gun owners, Christians, small investors, even NASCAR fans. They then asked credible, third party spokespeople to reach out to undecided voters in these communities. The Bush campaign understood the modern political campaign is not won at the political, opinion leader, values, or even issues levels any longer, but rather at the lifestyle level.
Tactics like this will only get easier -- and more necessary -- as blogs continue to proliferate. I'm not just talking about political blogs. A campaign cannot win simply by having a direct line into Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit.com (though that wouldn't hurt). Targeting lifestyle blogs will be fundamental to electoral success in the future.
Here's an illustration of how this might work. In New Hampshire, there are perhaps tens of thousands of residents who do not consider themselves Republicans or Democrats. They probably do not consider themselves political at all. But they do consider themselves snowmobilers. Meanwhile, there is nary a Democrat candidate for high public office who has not supported a measure to infringe snowmobilers' rights on public land at some point. But no campaign could afford to dedicate advertising dollars on such a narrow group of prospective voters (especially considering the backlash potential among seniors, the chief complainants of snowmobile noise). But if your Republican campaign has an open line of communication with snowmobilers' blogs and message boards, you have a built in mode of communication to a highly targeted, motivated, and potentially explosive voting group.
The same model can be followed for virtually every lifestyle lived among America's atomized population. For example, on the other side of the aisle, Democrats would be crazy not to reach out to the web surfers who register gripes and complaints with corporate watchdog sites like www.planetfeedback.com. Aggrieved customers of monster corporations are a perfect target audience for Democrat campaigns.
WHERE ATTENTION HAS BEEN paid to the relationships between political campaigns and blogs, only the negative aspects have shone through. Markos Moulisas of the Daily Kos got hammered on Fox News (and other places) when it was revealed he had a financial arrangement with the Dean campaign to provide "technical assistance." Before that, two South Dakota bloggers got in some embarrassingly hot water when it was revealed they had been paid to advocate on their blogs for then-candidate (now Senator) John Thune. Yes, paying for advocacy cheapens the blog medium, which is supposed to be a spontaneous engine of free speech. But these are credibility and ethical questions. Not legal or regulatory ones. Moreover, if what your campaign seeks is credible, third-party testimony, Kos and GOP bloggers are not your best avenue.
Of course, blogging has its limits. There are those who believe Howard Dean's campaign perfected the medium. Blogs shoved an obscure former Governor from a tiny state into the nation's spotlight. For a brief moment Dean looked as if he would ride the blog phenomenon to the Democrat nomination. But I was in New Hampshire before the Dean implosion. And I predicted a Dean defeat because I saw his staff and activists hanging out in bars and cyber cafes, confusing unfettered speech with genuine political activism. In the end, Dean's army of cyber supporters flunked the Get-Out-The-Vote test. Blogs are an answer, not the answer.
Two thousand eight will be the first presidential election without an heir presumptive since 1968. And blogs will play a monstrous role in the campaign of whichever candidates emerge from their respective fields. With blogs, the conversation between politician and voter is contiguous. Those thinking of running for president in 2008 should start the dialogue now.