On the morning of Sept. 15, Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign wanted to publicize an endorsement the senator had received from Gen. Wesley Clark. But instead of going first to the usual suspects—mainstream print, television and radio reporters covering the race—the senator’s team, aware of the general’s lofty reputation among liberal bloggers, tried another tack: It hastily arranged a conference call between General Clark and a group of leading online activists and pundits. Just minutes after the general signed off, influential sites like MyDD and TalkLeft—with hundreds of thousands of plugged-in daily visitors between them—had written in glowing terms about the news. “A big endorsement for Hillary,” one blogger gushed. Senator Clinton, not usually seen as a darling of the netroots, couldn’t have asked for a better rollout.
Of course, this was hardly the first time that a presidential campaign had favored bloggers over reporters with breaking news. Senator Clinton’s campaign did a similar thing back in July to announce her endorsement by another blogosphere favorite, Joe Wilson. And last week, shortly before Senator Barack Obama gave a major speech on Iraq, his campaign, according to a source, leaked a controversial excerpt to The Huffington Post—where it received favorable treatment—then organized a bloggers-only conference call with foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power. Even Republican Senator John McCain, who’s never been shy about chatting directly with mainstream reporters, holds regular calls with conservative bloggers—during one last week, he ripped into Senator Clinton and MoveOn.org while his campaign bus roared through Iowa.
Selectively dishing online makes sense for campaigns. After all, there are certain pieces of news, like the Clark and Wilson endorsements, that bloggers are likely to treat far more favorably than would neutral reporters—as some mainstream journalists are willing to admit. “Campaigns are looking to use as many channels of communication as they can to put out a message that bypasses … the traditional news media,” New York Times political editor—and consummate traditional news media man—Dick Stevenson told The Observer. Partisan blogs, he said, convey the campaign’s message in “a relatively unfiltered or sympathetic way.”
The Washington Post’s reporter-blogger Chris Cillizza, who perhaps more than anyone straddles the line between traditional and new media, agrees: “You no longer have to go through a mainstream media screen to get out information. There’s a lower bar.”
But the tactic is also allowing the savvier campaigns to start redefining the delicate relationship between themselves and blogs—to their own advantage. Last time around, in 2004, Howard Dean rode his status as the candidate of the Internet to turn himself from a little-known former governor of Vermont into the presumptive Democratic nominee. This year’s different. These days, the blogosphere is too diverse, and it prizes its independence too much, to throw all its weight behind one candidate during the primaries. And given Dean’s subsequent flameout in 2004, winning the blog sweepstakes may be a poisoned chalice anyway.
That’s why the smart campaigns are building a different model. George Allen’s “Macaca” moment last fall confirmed the power of the Internet to rapidly and widely spread breaking political news, whatever its source. So in the wake of Macaca, the presidential candidates have figured out that it makes more sense to treat blogs as news outlets—if partisan ones—to be used to disseminate a message, rather than as constituents to be courted. That strategy subtly puts them, not the bloggers, in the driver’s seat
There’s still a fair amount of straightforward relationship-building: Senator Clinton’s campaign recently won plaudits from bloggers by sending top spokesman Howard Wolfson onto The O’Reilly Factor to defend the 800-pound gorilla of the liberal blogosphere, DailyKos, from the host’s attacks.
But there’s also more distance. “The larger strategy of working with progressive blogs is to respect their independence,” Peter Daou, who runs Senator Clinton’s Internet strategy, told The Observer. In other words, accept that bloggers are unlikely to sign on as campaign proxies—as many essentially did with Dean in ’04—but use them when they can be helpful. That approach has been clear in Senator Clinton’s approach to date. In August, with Mr. Daou seated next to her, she gave a rather unconventional pitch to a who’s-who of liberal bloggers at their annual powwow, the Yearly Kos convention: “I invite you to really be partners in my campaign. That doesn’t mean you have to support me.”