Blog-rolling for votes and dollars

Political advertising on weblogs is booming, and some local candidates are raising big national money. Is the Web finally delivering on its revolutionary rhetoric?

Published June 9, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Most Americans probably don't know who Roy Blunt is, and they probably don't much care. Yes, Blunt, a Republican congressman from Missouri, is an important figure in Washington. As the House majority whip, he is the man responsible for getting Republican representatives to toe the party line -- so, in theory, he might be some kind of hero to folks in the GOP, and a villain to many Democrats. But seriously, Roy Blunt: Not really a name that inspires much passion either way, right? Even the most partisan Democrats would probably fail to pick him out of a lineup.

Yet if you've visited the lefty political blogosphere recently -- sites like Daily Kos, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, Wonkette, and a host of others -- it's possible you have been getting all worked up about Roy Blunt. That's not because the bloggers themselves are ranting and raving about him (they haven't been). Instead, it's because Jim Newberry, a Democrat who's trying to unseat Blunt in November, has flooded the blogs with a slew of anti-Blunt ads. In Newberry's ads, Blunt is no semi-anonymous cog in the Republican machine -- he is the epitome of conservative iniquity.

"Between massive tax breaks, and slipping tobacco company favors into the Homeland Security Bill, Roy Blunt has proven he's the best man that money can rent," reads the copy on one of Newberry's ads. It ends with a tagline that has become a Newberry rallying cry: "Boot Blunt."

Life in the blogs these days is fraught with pitches like Newberry's. Everywhere you look, aspiring politicians are hawking their platforms, or more likely, they're urging you to stick it to their opponents, who are often portrayed as the cause of all our nation's ills. Almost without exception, the blog-based ads for local candidates pursue Newberry's strategy, demonizing under-the-radar opponents by tying their actions to national problems.

"Now, anyone can be Jesse Helms," notes Glenn Reynolds, who runs the popular conservative blog Instapundit, which has published ads for Republicans and Democrats. "In the old days, you could take somebody like Jesse Helms or maybe Ted Kennedy and you could demonize them in order to raise money. With the Internet, you can hit any candidate and raise money by turning him into Jesse Helms for a small demographic."

It's easy to see why so many candidates are hoisting their billboards on blogs: Blog ads seem to offer office-seekers an easy tap into the vein of partisan discontent that (at least at first) worked so well for Howard Dean. The ads hold the promise of donations and, even more important, a community ready to support the candidate on Election Day.

But are they working? Reports from the candidates are mixed. Some campaigns have used ads on blogs to bring money and national attention to their candidates, though many of these people are running in races that were likely to attract attention anyway. Other campaigns report barely breaking even with blog ads.

Part of the problem, observers say, is that candidates are using ads as a substitute for actual communication with the readers of blogs. This is a shame; it wasn't too long ago that people were (perhaps naively) talking about the Web as the thing that would save us from the muck of everyday politics. Blogs were supposed to foster communities of informed citizens -- but the ads on blogs seem to elide this spirit of interactivity. Indeed, most candidates' blog ads have the look and feel of the pitches we're used to in the medium that the Web was supposed to replace -- television.

"I kind of cringe when I see a candidate I like advertise on my site," says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the proprietor of Daily Kos. "When they ask me if they should buy an ad, I always tell them to adjust their expectations." Moulitsas feels that instead of buying ads, candidates should just start engaging with the people who hang around in blogs. "I don't want candidates to think of blogs as an ATM machine."

If you ask denizens of lefty blogs to explain the recent proliferation of political ads on the Web, most people will come back at you with some version of the story of Ben Chandler. In January, Chandler, a Democrat running in a special election for a House seat in Kentucky's 6th District, laid down $2,000 to purchase ads on about a dozen blogs. The move was a bit of a gamble; nobody knew if advertising to a blog audience would be useful, and Mark Nickolas, Chandler's campaign manager, said that he planned to pay for the ads out of his own salary if they failed to raise any money. But he needn't have worried -- in just two weeks, about $80,000 in donations came pouring in to the campaign through the blog ads. The money gave Chandler's campaign needed resources in the last phase of the race, and on Election Day, in the middle of February, Chandler emerged victorious.

For many political candidates, the Web has long been a mysterious beast, clearly powerful but also unpredictable, difficult, somewhat dangerous. This is especially true for local candidates -- if you're running for Congress, what do you do with the Web? Getting people to learn your name is hard enough -- how do you get people in your district to go to your site? None of this was obvious until Ben Chandler came along with his blog ads. His experience provided candidates with a kind of road map for Web success.

How do you get people to go to your site and to open their wallets for your campaign? You go to where the people are -- blogs -- and you convince them, the way Chandler did, of the rightness of your run. Sure, most of these people can't vote for you; if quizzed, many would probably know very little about what goes on in your part of the country. But Ben Chandler's ads persuaded the blog audience to care about a particular race in order to "send a message" to Washington. If you want to do right by the blogosphere, Chandler's success seemed to show, you should paint your race as a national cause.

This strategy is in full swing on the lefty blogs. For instance, an ad for Doug Haines, a Georgia Democrat running for a seat in the House, features the grimacing mug of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Obviously, Haines is not running against Ashcroft in November; his opponent in the race is Max Burns, the Republican incumbent in Haines' district. But nobody cares about Burns. It's Ashcroft's creepy grin that keeps Democrats up at night.

Bill Gluba, a Democrat running for the House in Iowa, asks you to "Help Defeat the Republican Who Cut Taxes $500 Billion ... for America's Wealthiest 1%." Is Gluba running against George W. Bush, the president who proposed and signed such tax cuts? No, the Republican in question is Jim Nussle, the faceless congressman who chairs the House Budget Committee. But "Defeat Jim Nussle" doesn't have much of a ring to it. Another ad currently on Daily Kos demands, "Kick the Beast in Its Belly!" Which beast is this? The Republican-controlled House? The Senate? When you look closely at the ad, it turns out that the menace isn't a problem for a large swath of the country -- the beast is the Texas Supreme Court, the all-Republican body to which David Van Os, the Democrat who placed the ad, wants to be elected.

Do such old-school campaigns work? Mike Byron's experience is instructive. At the end of May, Byron, a Democrat running for a House seat in California's 49th District, a coastal region about 40 miles north of San Diego, launched a host of blog ads focusing on the incumbent in his race, Republican Darrell Issa. Like Roy Blunt, Issa is a marginal Republican villain, capable enough of raising partisan ire but not really fit to touch the hem of someone like Tom DeLay. In 2003, Issa, a multimillionaire, made his name by bankrolling much of the early effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis; Issa's initial plan was to take the statehouse for himself, but when a more formidable candidate emerged from Hollywood, Issa tearfully departed from the race. Byron's blog ads remind readers of this undignified exit: "Make Darrell Issa Cry. Again."

The ad, says Kynn Bartlett, Bryon's Internet campaign manager, was designed to appeal to a national audience. "We know there's a bunch of angry Democrats out there who don't like the way the California recall went down, who don't like the way he thinks he can buy his way into power," Bartlett says of Issa. Over the course of the campaign, Bartlett did occasionally tweak the messages on his ads, sometimes featuring Byron's strengths rather than dwelling on his opponent's alleged weaknesses. Those happier ads didn't work very well, though.

"So far I haven't got any donations from the positive ones," Bartlett says. "The people on Daily Kos and Atrios, they like the entertaining ads, the ones that make them laugh and that refer to something they understand. They look at it and they go, 'That's cute, I'll reward them with 25 bucks.' The negative ads get more attention and get more clicks, and I guess that's somewhat disturbing." But in politics you go with what works, and what worked on the blogs was the picture of a sobbing Darrell Issa. Within a week of placing this ad, Byron's campaign received many donations, most of them from people outside Byron's own district. Still, it wasn't a blowout -- the campaign spent a few hundred dollars on its ads, and it recouped just a bit more than that.

Barbara Boxer, the Democratic Senator from California, saw similar results from her blog campaign. Although she is an icon to many liberal Democrats, Boxer's ads -- which are featured on Atrios and Daily Kos and are all positive, saying nothing of Bill Jones, Boxer's Republican opponent in November -- did not lead to a windfall in donations.

"We have not raised a substantial amount of money," says Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer's campaign manager. "We've had a few thousand people click through to our site since we launched the ads a few weeks ago, and a few hundred people have taken some action -- we've gotten several hundred people who have either contributed or signed up to be on our mailing lists. So it isn't like some candidates we've heard about who have raised hundreds of thousands." Kapolczynski speculates that "it could be that Barbara Boxer is so well known that many of those people are already part of our campaign. We have nearly 80,000 donors to our campaign already."

That might be it. But another reason candidates like Boxer and Byron have not done better than breaking even with blog ads is that they've made no real effort to convince blog readers of the importance of their run. Ben Chandler's success told candidates that an ad was enough: Build a blog ad and the bloggers will come. But Moulitsas says this is a mistaken premise. It's a myth that Ben Chandler raised $80,000 because he spent $2,000 on blog ads. He raised $80,000 because every political blog was following his run, writing feverishly about the sweet possibility of a Democrat winning a race in the South.

A similar thing happened in the special congressional election in South Dakota, where, on June 1, Stephanie Herseth, a Democrat, won the statewide House seat. Herseth raised thousands through her blog ads, but it wasn't just because she ran blog ads. It was because Herseth actively engaged with blog readers from the moment she launched her campaign, and bloggers like Moulitsas saw early on that Herseth was a serious candidate worthy of his support. It's true that blog ads helped convert ambient support for Chandler and Herseth into hard dollars. But in both cases the ads were just a mechanism, and setting them up was the easy part. Giving people a reason to click on the ads is the hard part.

Jim Newberry, the Missouri lawyer running to boot Roy Blunt, doesn't think of blogs as an ATM. His Web operations are engineered by Stirling Newberry, who is Jim's cousin once removed and a veteran of blog-based politicking. Stirling Newberry was involved in one of the various Draft Clark campaigns, and he's a regular contributor to sites like Daily Kos and The Blogging of the President. Stirling has written extensively about his plans to turn Jim's run into the model of an "open campaign."

The Newberry "campaign is binding its various parts together by using new technologies and new ideas, and taking the best of what everyone is doing," Stirling wrote on, a popular blog. "The job of the campaign is to pull ideas in, and turn them into a unified message. It's Jim that is running for office, make no mistake about it, and he decides what the campaign is going to do. But, instead of trying to impose from the top down, he is trying to pull in from the center out."

These are high-minded ideas, and it's not clear whether Newberry will be able to stick with them through the campaign -- or, if he does stick with them, whether they'll lead to success. But Newberry's plan does seem a bit more solid than that of the many other candidates pitching themselves to blogs. It's true that Newberry's Boot Blunt ads don't look very different from the other candidates' spots, and it's not likely that many people will decide to give to Newberry just as a way to get rid of someone as forgettable as Roy Blunt. But the ads, Stirling Newberry says, are but one part of Jim's online campaign. Bloggers know that you keep a blog-audience engaged by writing frequently about a subject, and Stirling blogs frequently about Jim Newberry. The writing keeps the lefty blog audience in touch with the goings-on in the Newberry campaign, creating a rapport between the candidate and his far-flung supporters.

So far, the Newberry campaign has spent about $4,000 on its ads on blogs, and it has made back all of that money in donations. This pleased Stirling Newberry, because he was able to take the $4,000 to several national political organizations -- he won't say which ones -- as proof of Jim's appeal to voters. The national organizations in turn decided to pump $20,000 into the Newberry campaign; Stirling says that the campaign is on track to raise $50,000 by the end of June.

Moulitsas, of Daily Kos, pointed to Jim Newberry's campaign as the right way to woo blog readers to a campaign. It's true that Newberry is blanketing the blogs with ads -- but his campaign is doing so while also trying to build grassroots support among bloggers. Only candidates who do this, Moulitsas says, will see much success in their ads.

Moulitsas recently invited a handful of candidates to submit statements to his site as part of the selection of the DKos8 -- eight candidates to whom the Daily Kos community will direct its support in November. Many of the candidates who took part had extremely nice things to say about the readers of Daily Kos. Tony Knowles, a Democrat running for the Senate in Alaska, was particularly generous with his compliments: "I am flattered and honored that you have asked me to contribute to your blog," Knowles wrote to the readers of Daily Kos. "I have read so many excellent discussions here about our campaign. In fact, it was your blog that was discussing the nuances involved in this race way back in December of last year (and before)."

Knowles' kind words led some blog readers to become suspicious that the candidate was pandering to the blog audience. But as one reader pointed out, "What's wrong with that?" Every other constituency in America is pandered to -- maybe it's time candidates started paying attention to what happens on blogs. "His statement makes it obvious that he has either been following what has been going on here longer than most, or else is interested enough in us to do some research."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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