Thursday, June 15, 2006

For Better Or Worse: Bayh At The Marriage Of Internet & Politics

For Better Or Worse: Bayh At The Marriage Of Internet & Politics

For Howey Political Report June 15, 2006

"I used to think that the best feature of the Internet is that it let the common man have his say. Now I realize that it's that we can laugh at those idiots who do." - June 26, 2004 entry at "Journal of chromatic (983)" online

For better or worse, success in politics today goes hand in paw with an effective internet strategy. Tread carefully. The beast online is often hungry and easily angered.

In theory, at least, the internet is a boon to the common man. The powerful instrument for democracy that is the world wide web offers equal voice to anyone with access to a keyboard and an internet connection. These days, anyone means almost everyone. In 2005, the number of Americans considered to be active internet users by Nielsen//NetRatings amounted to 143 million, or almost half of the population.

"In eight years between the 1996 and 2004 presidential campaigns the number of Americans relying on the Internet for political news grew sixfold," the IT Observer reported. Gallup indicated that in 2004 one in five of us depended on the internet as our main source of news.

A force to be reckoned with

Clearly a force to be reckoned with, but how? Politicians are asking themselves the same question.

"While the Internet is not a fresh phenomenon in politics - who can forget the rise and fall of Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential campaign? - a more sophisticated chapter is opening," wrote Jeff Zeleny in the June 11th issue of the Chicago Tribune. "Republicans and Democrats agree that emerging technologies will almost certainly rewrite the rules of American politics, much as television did four decades ago."

Last weekend Indiana's Sen. Evan Bayh visited New Hampshire to gauge and foster support for an increasingly likely run at the White House in 2008. But, while Sen. Bayh ducked the rain and cold weather up north, several other contenders for the Democratic nomination were in Las Vegas romancing the new kid in school - Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, or the Kos.

Moulitsas, purveyor of the internet's most popular liberal blog site the Daily Kos, is said to command a following numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Decidedly from the left wing of the Democratic Party, Kos was described as "the No. 1 Web dispensary of vitriol, vituperation and abuse of George W.," by conservative columnist Wesley Pruden of the Washington Times.

Old and new media, conservative and liberal alike pay close attention to goings-on at the Daily Kos. Many reporters, including Pruden, were in attendance last weekend when some 1,000 like-minded bloggers turned out for the first ever Yearly Kos convention. The gathering in Sin City was described in a New York Times editorial as "the mainstream debut of 'internet-powered politics.'" Well-known democrats asking for a chance at the dance included Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Yet to make his mark

Despite the hard work of a dedicated few, Indiana's former governor has yet to leave much of an imprint on the blogosphere. That may be about to change, according to Meghan Keck, the senator's press secretary.

"[Sen.] Bayh believes the Internet is a critical part of political outreach in the 21st century," Keck told HPR in an emal. "He posts entries on national blogs, such as the Huffington Post, and will do more of that in the future, and the [All America PAC] sends several emails each month with updates on his recent efforts.

"In addition, the All America PAC will be rolling out a new PAC website in the coming days to better help leading candidates across the country, and has a new staffer who will oversee Internet outreach and serve as an online organizer."

Ryan Alexander is the PAC's new online organizer/blogger. On Tuesday he sent an email to Bayh supporters explaining the new website "will allow us to add a host of interactive features for members of the netroots to interact with Senator Bayh and the All America PAC community."

Finding the center

Any effort to capture and retain the loyalty of potential voters via the internet could serve to help Bayh and the party moderate the leftward pull exerted by the Kos. Yesterday, Bayh blogger and Indiana resident Rob at Confessions of a Hoosier Democrat published these thoughts on the matter.

"Kos and his band of merry men seem to make it a sport to try to tear down any Democrat who doesn't fit the mold they've established," Rob wrote. "If you don't think the same way they do in any number of different areas then you aren't a 'true Democrat.'"

Rob told HPR that he became excited about Bayh when the senator was mentioned as a potential vice president candidate in the last two elections.

"I know Sen. Bayh is a good man with great ideas," he wrote in an email to HPR. Rob has been interested in politics since he was president of the University Democrats while attending Ball State about a dozen years ago.

"I consider myself a moderate," according to his latest blog entry. "I don't believe we should pull out troops out now. I don't believe that Bush should be impeached unless we have ironclad concrete proof he's violated a law. I believe Evan Bayh, Harold Ford and other moderate Democrats ARE good Democrats. Because I believe those things I don't fit into Kos's Democratic Party. That's sad."

Marie operates two websites, Americans for Bayh and Hoosier Democrats. The 1979 graduate of Indiana University told HPR that she started "a very meager blog" in the 2004 election.

"It occured to me that the blog medium might be an opportunity to correct misinformation and get views that were not being shared in the media to those who where interested in the truth," she stated in an email.

Spread the good word

"The goal is to get the positive news about Senator Bayh on the net. At first it was a struggle to find anything on the blogs. Only a few bloggers were talking about Bayh, that's changed in the past year and now Bayh is mentioned somewhere on a blog daily. It's been a fun process."

"So if any one wonders if their little blog can make a difference the answer is 'YES,'" Marie said. "The more people write about Bayh and publish the more will come up on search engines about Bayh and his accomplishments both as a U.S. senator and Indiana's governor. "

Not all Hoosier blogs are positive about Sen. Bayh, of course. Yesterday, the online Indiana Blog Review linked to two such entries. One was an entry by Matt Tully of the Indianapolis Star who reported on the senator's poor showing in a poll of Iowa democrats. "Bayh needs to find a way to start moving up the list," Tully wrote. "For starters, perhaps he can at least start beating 'none of these.'"

Unhappy blog

Bill Browning of the LGBT blog Bilerico was critical of the senator's response to a question posed during a gathering of Hoosier bloggers hosted by Bayh. "I get the distinct impression that the good Senator's office has avoided answering my question" about the state constitutional amendment to outlaw civil marriage for gays and lesbians, his entry stated. "As far as presidential contenders, Bayh is no Dennis Kucinich or Russ Feingold," Browning wrote. "Although with a recent Iowa poll showing Bayh running behind 'None of These,' do we really have to worry about a Bayh presidential bid much longer?"

Ouch. No one said the relationship would be easy. The whole idea of the lunch, according to Keck, Bayh's press rep, was to give the senator "the opportunity to learn more about the issues and ideas that local bloggers are interested in and to introduce himself to some of the Hoosiers who cover politics on their blogs." Although Bilerico was not the only blogger who complained after the Bayh meeting (see HPR, May 25), most reports were favorable.

Now Sen. Bayh faces a dilemma. He must somehow enlist support for moderate policies via an internet currently dominated by a camp the Times' Pruden described as "so far out in the solar system, somewhere beyond Pluto, that Hillary Clinton is regarded as the ruling goddess of the vast right-wing media conspiracy."

So far, Evan Bayh has orchestrated a remarkably successful movement in terms of fundraising (third among democrats) and organization (he's assembled an all-star cast). Veteran pundits like Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post note that as the hardest-working potential Democratic candidate he's made many of the right moves. His frequent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire come to mind. But it looks quite possible that bloggers like Marie and Rob, and staffers like Ryan Alexander, will play an increasingly important role if the senator is to have the opportunity to walk down the aisle during the next presidential election.


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