By Chris Bowers
As someone who spends a great deal of time both reading through and writing “meta” commentary on the impact of the progressive netroots and blogosphere on the Democratic Party and broader progressive ecosystem, I think I can safely state, without setting up a straw man, that one of the most common lines of thought in these discussions is how the netroots and the blogosphere are a destructive force upon the Democratic Party. This idea was particularly rampant during the weeks immediately preceding the Connecticut Senate primary between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman, but is not exclusive to discussions of that campaign. Five weeks before the election, Time magazine published a piece that directly implied if Democrats won the election, it would be in spite of the progressive netroots, and if we lost the election, it would be because of it. During CNN’s coverage on Election Night, the impact of the netroots was considered entirely in the context of the Connecticut Senate race, and as such it was deemed that the netroots’ 2006 election effort was an ineffective failure.
As someone known not only as a prominent figure within the progressive netroots, but also as someone with a tendency to base much of my writing on quantitative research, I have often been asked to try and measure the positive impact of the netroots on the Democratic Party and the 2006 elections in order to counter these arguments. This is not an easy thing to do, but I believe there are a number of more or less objective ways in which the contribution of the progressive netroots to the Democratic victories in 2006 can be documented. Taken together, these contributions reveal just how mature a political force the progressive netroots have become, and how indispensable they are to continued Democratic success in the future. Here are six such areas:
1) Closing the fundraising gap. In 2004, a post-election study by MoveOn.org documented that their members gave more than $180 million to Democratic candidates in amounts greater than $200 from 2003-2004. (Had it been possible to measure all contributions, including those in amounts under $200, the totals would have been far greater.)
In the 2005-2006 election cycle, according to the FEC, Democrats significantly closed the fundraising gap on Republicans. Already established as a significant source in Democratic fundraising circles, much, if not most, of these gains came from the still-growing pool of online donations. Act Blue, for instance, recorded $16.8 million in donations to Democratic candidates this cycle, an increase of $16 million from 2003-2004. Although exact numbers are unavailable, undoubtedly Democratic congressional candidates raised tens of millions more through email lists, campaign websites, and blogs than they raised in 2003-2004. Every last cent of this massive increase in online fundraising for Democratic congressional candidates came from netroots activists, since the definition of a netroots activist is someone who takes political action online. Further, through the netroots-driven Use It Or Lose It program, the progressive netroots also provided a crucial role in directing millions of dollars into key races during the final weeks of the campaign.
2) Campaigning on Iraq. Long before it was adopted as the central campaign issue by the party leadership, the progressive blogosphere persistently urged–begged–Democratic candidates to make the failed and unpopular war in Iraq the centerpiece of their campaigns. In late 2005, when asked about the Democratic platform in 2006, Rahm Emmanuel listed five important domestic issues. However, the war in Iraq was conspicuously absent from his list of campaign topics. This is despite the fact that open-ended polling on the most important issues facing the nation–that is, polls that did not prompt respondents with a list of issues–had consistently shown Iraq to be the number one issue in the mind of the electorate. At the national level, Democrats were in danger of avoiding the issue altogether. Without continued grassroots and netroots pressure, including the defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary, it is less likely that the Democratic leadership would have largely based the 2006 campaign on what remains the primary issue of our time: Iraq.
3) Keeping the base motivated. During the past two years, the average daily audience of the progressive blogosphere was more than twice its size in 2004, and twenty times its size in 2003. During the height of the campaign season, the progressive blogosphere was reaching more than five million Americans every day (for more on the demographics of these readers, click here). While alternative, progressive media is still dwarfed by the conservative media empire, and while important advances in progressive talk radio cannot be underestimated, the progressive blogosphere forms of the heart of emerging progressive media. Its rapid expansion provided a new platform from which a progressive and Democratic message, including the message of Party leaders and candidates in key districts, could reach millions of influential Democrats everyday. For too long, Democrats had ignored the importance of motivating the base, and many even criticized the progressive blogosphere for “preaching to the choir.” However, the fruits of keeping the base informed and motivated, largely accomplished through the blogosphere, were revealed in 2006, as all polls repeatedly showed Democrats more motivated to participate in the elections than Republicans.
4) Influencing establishment media coverage. Once again, new partisan media showed its worth by challenging, altering, and even creating establishment media coverage of Republican scandals and Republican spin. On every major legislative fight over the past two years, from Social Security to the attempt to end judicial review and habeas corpus, the netroots and the blogosphere provided an important amplifying effect for the Democratic message. On major Republican scandals, from the Administration’s payola to Armstrong Williams until the congressional page scandal, the blogosphere helped increase the length of coverage, adding new wrinkles and buzz to the stories. From Jeff Gannon to George Allen’s “Macaca” moment, the blogosphere and the netroots actually uncovered and pushed new Republican scandals into the more-established “mainstream” press. By now, there isn’t a single political news department that does not read the left-wing blogosphere on a daily basis, and the positive influence this has had on press coverage for Democrats compared to that from other recent election cycles cannot be underestimated.
5) Stretching Republicans’ resources thin. From the special election in the Ohio 2nd Congressional District last summer to Gary Trauner’s surprisingly close challenge for Wyoming’s at-large congressional seat, the blogosphere and the netroots worked to provide resource and media support to candidates not given much in the way of direct support by Party committees or considered to have much of a chance by the established media. Additionally, with significant help from all Party committees, the online perpetuation of the spirit of the fifty-state strategy helped recruit and encourage more Democrats to run for office in more districts than at any time since the 1970s. With Republicans forced to defend more seats than at any time in thirty years, and with numerous Democrats in supposedly long-shot districts receiving surprising support, many GOP resources were pulled away from key swing districts where the election was largely won.
6) New infrastructure, new ideas. Nationwide, new netroots organizations, most notably MoveOn.org, provided tens of millions of dollars worth of resources of all sorts to Democratic candidates. Further, from precinct captains to members of the Democratic National Committee, an ongoing netroots project known as the silent revolution has aimed to place netroots activists in Democratic Party offices where positions are either currently vacant or held by ineffective incumbents (the former is far more commonly the case). This project has injected the Democratic Party with tens of thousands of new activists, forming an important supplement to existing Democratic Party infrastructure and GOTV efforts. When it comes to utilizing new media and campaign tactics, the netroots are also testing new forms of voter contact, as was the case with BlogPac’s Internet search optimization campaign in 2006. For only around $500, this campaign of Googlebombing and Google AdWords, made voter contact with nearly 700,000 people in 50 key congressional districts. The subsequent publicity it received will allow this easy and inexpensive means of voter contact to spread to many other campaigns in 2008 and beyond.
By this late date, most members of the Democratic and progressive leadership recognize the netroots and blogosphere as vital parts of our coalition and campaign infrastructure. As such, congratulations and thanks have been appropriately given all around. After all, we would not have succeed in retaking majorities in both Congress and the states without the grand, unified effort of all ideological and advocacy factions within the broad Democratic and progressive ecosystem. I hope that this piece will encourage the remaining holdouts to come around on the value of the progressive netroots. If it does, then we will have moved one step closer to making permanent the party unity that was so successful in 2006. In victory, we cannot start tearing ourselves down, or we will once more find ourselves on the wrong end of elections in the very near future.
Chris Bowers is the managing editor of MyDD.com and is on the executive committee of BlogPac. He has a BA in English from Ursinus College, where he taught for two years, and an MA in English from Temple University, where he taught for five years and completed his coursework for a Ph.D. Chris has also worked as a political consultant and as a union organizer for the American Federation of Teachers.
By Chris Bowers