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.”
Mr. Daou “knows everything there is to know about blogs,” according to Matt Stoller, a prominent progressive blogger at Open Left. Before joining Senator Clinton, Mr. Daou, who’s based in Manhattan but spent a decade living in Beirut, did some rudimentary Internet outreach for Senator John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004, and, perhaps more important, was a well-regarded liberal blogger for Salon. When he signed on with the junior senator from New York in June 2006, Mr. Daou titled his final Salon post, “Closing the Triangle with Hillary Clinton”—the ‘triangle,’ he wrote, being “comprised of the traditional media, the political establishment, and the blogosphere.”
If Senator Clinton’s approach to the blogosphere has been characterized, appropriately, by triangulation, Senator Obama’s has often seemed to convey outright disdain. Last year, he committed a cardinal Internet sin by backing the hawkish Joe Lieberman over his Senate primary challenger, netroots darling and Iraq war opponent Ned Lamont. Since then, things haven’t improved. Some bloggers expressed irritation that at a closed-door session at Yearly Kos, Senator Obama would speak to them only off the record. Others have complained that his campaign hasn’t been sufficiently open to the netroots’ policy and strategy ideas, relying instead on a more traditional coterie of inside-the-Beltway advisers. Referring to the senator’s Internet outreach strategy, Stoller recently wrote, “The Obama campaign basically does nothing.”
And yet, for all the grousing, Senator Obama’s campaign has had no trouble using blogs to selectively frame stories when it has wanted to. In July, it ensured a cycle or two of positive press by leaking its impressive online fund-raising numbers to MyDD, where blogger Jonathan Singer enthused: “Howard Dean raised about $25 million online of the $50 million or so he raised over the course of 2003, so Obama appears to be on pace to top that online fund-raising record by a fairly large margin.” And he remains a favorite on several prominent sites, most notably The Huffington Post.
If any major candidate has tried to replicate Mr. Dean’s more old-fashioned outreach strategy, based on winning bloggers’ unconditional support, it’s been John Edwards. The former senator has hired Dean’s onetime Internet guru, Joe Trippi, as a campaign strategist, and given liberal bloggers the hard sell. Though the effort has won Mr. Edwards goodwill from some bloggers, it’s offered nothing like the boost, in money or popular support, that Mr. Dean received last time around. The “son of a millworker” remains mired in third place, and his fund-raising, both online and off, has been anemic.
Republicans may have figured some of this out quicker. The conservative blogosphere has never played as prominent a role in making or breaking candidates, and as a result, G.O.P. campaigns are more likely to value blogs for their ability to help frame messages and release information, without worrying too much about winning their undying allegiance. Indeed, when a rival Republican campaign wanted to highlight a damaging video of front-runner Rudy Giuliani taking a soft line on immigration in the 90’s, it leaked the footage to the liberal site Talking Points Memo—which dutifully posted it and kicked off a round of media attention.
Though most bloggers might prefer the role of kingmaker to that of bullhorn, it’s mainstream reporters who could end up being the biggest losers from the changed setup. “There might be times when I see something on a blog and wish that they had called me,” says Dan Balz, The Washington Post’s veteran political reporter. “I’ll call and say, ‘That’s something I’d like to have known.’” Still, he adds, “there’s too much else to worry about. There’s so many moving pieces in this campaign. There’s food for all.”