How the Internet turned everyone into James Carville

Thanks to the Net, we've all got access to poll numbers, fundraising figures and endless political gossip -- and we all know exactly what the candidates need to do to win.

Topics: Polling,

How the Internet turned everyone into James Carville

In late August and early September, as John Kerry’s campaign for president hit one low point after another, bloggers of all stripes took to the Web with pointed political advice for the candidate. They told him how he should attack Bush and how he should hone his message. They even wrote sample speeches for the candidate.

On Sept. 13, for instance, “Zackpunk,” a regular contributor to the political junkie Web site Daily Kos, wrote in his “diary” (a kind of miniblog within the larger site) that while listening to Al Franken on the radio, two disparate facts about the Bush presidency fused together in his mind. One was the story, first reported by Bob Woodward, that when Bush told his secretary of state, Colin Powell, that he planned to invade Iraq, Powell had warned the president that “you’ll own it all.” The other was Bush’s campaign promotion of an “ownership society.”

These two facts, Zackpunk said, left a “huge opening for Kerry,” with an ideal speech from the senator looking something like this: “Mr. President, Colin Powell told you about this war that ‘if you break it, you own it.’ And now you’re going around talking about an ‘ownership society.’ Well, Mr. President, let me tell you what you own. A million jobs lost. You own that. A thousand soldiers lost. You own that. 1.4 million new people living below the poverty line. You own that. 1.2 million less people covered by health insurance. You own that. A seventeen percent medicare increase. You own that. Health care costs skyrocketing. You own that. The tax burden increasing amongst the middle class. You own that. Mr. President, if you want to talk about an ownership society, let’s talk about what you own.”

The speech was a powerful, specific, fact-filled indictment of Bush. And on Daily Kos, when someone writes something as brilliant as that in a diary, other readers begin noticing, and if it’s good enough the post can land on the Kos front page. That’s what happened in this case, and Kerry’s campaign seemed to notice. In a speech two days later, Kerry said, “At that convention in New York the other week, President Bush talked about his ownership society. Well, Mr. President, when it comes to your record, we agree — you own it.” Kerry went on to enumerate Bush’s mistakes and label his term the “Excuses Presidency,” “never wrong, never responsible, never to blame.”

It’s possible that the Kerry people came upon their speech independently of Daily Kos, but Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the site’s owner, says that he suspects Kerry is listening. “It’s not that they’re listening to Markos,” he says. “They’re realizing that there’s this huge community out there that has good ideas. There are 400 or 500 diary entries a day. If one in a thousand diary entries has something of value,” that’s a good idea every couple of days.

Today, it seems that every political junkie online secretly (if not openly) believes he’s James Carville, a strategist possessed of such uncontested political genius that a particular candidate would be crazy not to listen to his advice, especially if that particular candidate is John Kerry. It’s possible to find people on the Web who’ll claim that they could do at least as good a job in winning political races as the veteran consultants on the inside. So what if these people have never worked in any actual campaign? At least some of them were warning, months ago, that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would be a problem for Kerry and that he should respond hard and fast — an idea that Kerry’s team would have been wise to consider.

How is it possible that amateur political junkies are potentially having an effect on actual campaigns? The answer is that the Internet has fundamentally changed politics as we know it. There is just so much out there that we didn’t have access to four years ago: polling data, fundraising data, media-buy data; instant access to every TV ad and press release and unguarded gaffe and well-timed leak to jolt the campaign; insider dish on what the media’s covering and what it’s not covering and why; and perhaps most fun of all, there are massive online communities in which hundreds of thousands of people submit their mostly corny, often silly, and sometimes unimaginably brilliant ideas for how this candidate or that should run his campaign. “As a political junkie,” says Moulitsas, “this is heaven for me.”

“I don’t think that most people delude themselves into thinking they’re actually James Carville,” says Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “But for many of them it’s gratifying to pore over the poll data and all this other data and think about what you would have done. You know what I’d compare it to? It’s like fantasy football. I don’t mean to suggest that people are trivializing it — but politics does have these gamelike aspects to it, and it can be gratifying in a number of ways to play the game.”

Jerome Armstrong, who runs the popular left-leaning blog MyDD.com, is 40 years old, and for much of his life he followed politics only “on the periphery,” he says. Only in the last few years has he come to see both the necessity and the excitement of civic participation, and in that short time he’s taken to the game with all the gusto of a natural. Armstrong was an early fan of Howard Dean, and Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was an early fan of Armstrong’s blog; the match was eventually consummated in Burlington, Vt., where, during Dean’s rise and fall, Armstrong decamped to work for the campaign. Now Armstrong is a full-fledged political consultant; he and Moulitsas have set up a firm to advise politicians on how to use the Web to outmaneuver their opponents, much as Armstrong (and many others) helped Dean to do in his campaign.

Armstrong’s interest in Web campaigns is genuine, and given his background with Dean, he is just as qualified, if not more so, as any veteran consultant to advise a candidate looking for online expertise. But Armstrong has educated himself in much more than the mechanics of Web campaigns. Like Moulitsas, he’s a political polymath, the kind of guy who can recite every competitive House race this year, and if you’ve got time he may well tell you the various candidates’ fundraising records, his support in the party, and recent polling data for his race. “I’ve been looking at the House races for about the last three or four days,” he said on Thursday, launching into a detailed discussion of the Democratic Party’s chances of regaining control of the chamber in November. “It looks really close — if the whole thing goes like 3 percent toward the Democrats, they could win like 20 seats.” (That’s just his top-line estimate; see here and here for a much, much more in-depth analysis.)

Armstrong’s House forecast is based on polling data he’s culled from news sources all over the Web, and fundraising data he got from the Federal Election Commission’s Web site. “What I’ve been doing is, I’ve been looking at where the Republican attack money is going,” Armstrong says. “Like I’ve been looking into how the Republican leadership PACs are distributing money, which House races they’re targeting — that way you see which races are competitive.” Four years ago, it may have been possible to collect this data, but it would have been more difficult than it is today, and, anyway, without the distribution platform of blogs, doing this kind of research would have been pointless then.

“Ten years ago you’d have to go down to the FEC and get their filings and put it all in a big book and bring it back,” Armstrong notes. “Maybe like 100 people in the country would have seen it. This year, here I am just a blogger getting this stuff, and since I’ve got the time and the resources I can look into this.”

Moulitsas concurs; on the Web, it’s springtime for number crunchers. “I’ve always been a political junkie,” he says. “But never before like this — there’s no way I could have kept up with a Senate race in South Dakota, or a House race in Nevada, it just was not possible. Now, every newspaper’s online, and with Google News I can have all this stuff e-mailed to me when news happens. I’ve set up all sorts of keywords; I’m always getting all this stuff. It’s a whole different environment.”

In the grand scheme of technological progress, increased access by bloggers to political information isn’t the most astounding development. Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor who runs the popular, right-ish blog Instapundit, notes that “if you look at a more general picture of the world recently, the difference between amateurs and professionals has vanished in a whole lot of ways. For instance, look at music — it used to be you only knew about studio stuff if you were a serious musician; the amateur would never know about it. But now you can set these things up at home. The insider tricks aren’t insider tricks anymore, now that outsiders have access to the knowledge.” A similar thing has occurred in film and photography with the advent of digital imaging, or in journalism with the advent of the Web and of blogs themselves. Why should political strategy be any different?

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The Web’s metamorphosis into a haven for armchair strategists seems all the more natural when you consider the fetishization of political operatives that has increasingly become the obsession of all media covering modern elections. It’s well established that there are not nearly as many stories about policy today as there are about campaigns and the personalities who people them. John Kerry’s capacity to run a presidential campaign is deemed at least as important as his capacity to, you know, run the country. The success of the DA Pennebaker film “The War Room,” and “K Street,” and especially “The West Wing,” a TV show created by a political junkie as a gift to the rest of us afflicted with the bug, just underlines the point. One of the hottest video games in recent months has been “The Political Machine,” which is no doubt the first game ever to feature as its primary villain the vexing mathematics of the Electoral College. And finally, for proof that we are ever more concerned about the horse race rather than the issues of the presidential race, look no further than the talking heads on cable news, constantly plumbing the depths of a sole overarching political-strategy story line, “What should Candidate X do next?”

The amateurs playing politics online often come off smarter than those on TV, and you can interact with them, which makes playing the game fun. Because they are now actually involved in assisting political campaigns, it wouldn’t be correct to include Moulitsas and Armstrong in this group of “amateurs.” But they’re definitely not professionals in the mold of the veteran experts advising either of the presidential campaigns or the political parties, and certainly their readers — who are apprised of much of the information that they collect — are amateurs. In this sense, what we’re seeing in this election cycle is truly novel; amateurs, the political junkies whose interest in politics used to go unfulfilled, now find themselves holding some of the mightiest data in politics, the kind of dish they used to drool over.

It would be a bit too credulous to conclude that these developments will prove to be a boon to political campaigns and, more pressingly, to the quality of American politics. So far, bloggers and the readers of blogs have been most influential to campaigns through fundraising — especially for Dean, Kerry, Bush and many congressional candidates — and, in a few instances, they’ve affected the news cycle, most recently in their flogging of CBS News’ now-discredited Bush National Guard memos. In the Dean campaign, Trippi and other advisors professed to rely on the readers of the official Howard Dean blog for at least some strategic advice; we’ll never know if this advice ultimately helped Dean, propelling him to a position that he never would have attained without help from the bloggers, or whether, in the end, the cultish Deaniac movement drove people away from Dean and did in his candidacy.

There is no easy way to measure the “quality” of the political strategy generated on the Web in the comments section of sites like MyDD or DailyKos. “It’s all over the map,” notes John Judis, the New Republic editor whose last book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” written with the political analyst Ruy Teixeira, serves as the basis for the popular blog Donkey Rising. “It’s just like in sports. Who’s to say what’s a good idea and what’s not?” But Judis also believes that much of the strategy offered up by denizens of lefty blogs is earnest, “flowing from a genuine political commitment,” and is not out of the “the sheer pursuit of consultancy as an abstract skill”; as such, he says, it wouldn’t hurt political campaigns to monitor some of what’s going on online.

There is evidence that this is occurring, as witnessed by Zackpunk’s ownership speech. But even if the blog audience does not serve up fresh strategic advice every day, it’s at least useful to look at what the people online are saying if you’re trying to attract them to your campaign, says Stirling Newberry, who blogs at the Blogging of the President.

“People are expert consumers, and it’s much easier to find out what people really think about something like a consumer product if you observe them,” Newberry says. If you go to a fan site devoted to motorcycles, you’ll find out what’s on the minds of potential motorcycle consumers. Likewise, if you go to a site devoted to politics, you’ll find out what’s bothering potential consumers of a political message — and you’ll discover their problems even if their specific ideas or suggestions for improving that product aren’t very astute. “People really talk about the things they’re worried about,” Newberry says. “A lot of people say that by watching these sites Kerry should have known that Swift Boats were going to be very important — he should have done something.”

One problem with amateurs holding the tools of professionals, though, is that they may not quite understand how to use them. During the past few weeks, there’s been a spirited discussion between some bloggers over how to interpret and account for the volatility in some presidential campaign polls, especially a recent Gallup poll showing a huge Bush lead. Ruy Teixeira, the polling expert of Donkey Rising, has argued convincingly that the Gallup poll is off because it oversampled Republicans in its calculation of voters “likely” to cast a ballot in November; Mickey Kaus, the resident blogger at Slate, called that thesis nonsense, and offered just as convincing a theory to support Gallup’s numbers.

Such a fight, let’s note, is unlikely to have come up four years ago; then, we didn’t have as many polls with which to compare one single aberrant poll, and far fewer people were interested in the mechanics of polling. We’ve now got inside access to dozens of polls and sites that collect and analyze polls, from the indispensable Electoral-Vote.com to PollingReport.com to Real Clear Politics to Donkey Rising; if you’re a politics junkie online these days, you likely consume at least a half-dozen new polls for breakfast each morning.

But what’s an amateur to do in the case of a real question about the proper way to use these new tools? Maybe there is a place online for real experts, people who specialize in such previously cloistered fields as opinion polling. Online, you sometimes see some very bitter, partisan fights over polls, with no small number of people charging that certain surveys are rigged. Looking over this world recently, Mark Blumenthal, a veteran Democratic political consultant and pollster, decided that his professional voice needed to be added to the mix. He didn’t blame the amateurs for their occasional ignorance about polling; it’s not their fault, he says, that his industry hasn’t engaged with the people online. But now, he says, it’s time for that collaboration. “My sense is there is a role for a source of information about polling — there’s all this talk about manipulation, a conspiracy of the right or the left. Meanwhile, there’s a community of social scientists who deeply care about how to draw a random sample, about getting things right. And the two groups aren’t really talking to each other.”

The best way to get the two sides talking to each other, Blumenthal recognized, would be by starting a blog of his own to discuss the ins and outs of polls. That’s what he did last week with a site he calls Mystery Pollster; on his first day, Blumenthal got a link from Mickey Kaus and 15,000 page views. Blumenthal says he wants the site to serve as a bridge between the professional political consultants and the amateurs who populate the Web, and judging by the comments people have left him so far, he says that may happen. “It’s an experiment,” he says of the project, “a six-week experiment, and then we’ll see what happens. It sure does look like it’s going to take up all my spare time until then.”

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