Blogged Down in the Past

McCain's top-down Internet tactics can't keep up with Obama's social networking strategy

An ongoing examination of blogs devoted to the 2008 presidential campaign, and interviews with bloggers and blogger outreach coordinators from the contending presidential campaigns, reveals a fundamental difference in the candidates’ approach to the blogosphere.

Barack Obama’s campaign reaches out to activist bloggers in order to communicate with and mobilize campaign volunteers and feed them into its online social networking site, In contrast, John McCain’s campaign takes a top-down approach, using blogs—many of which it helped incubate—as an echo chamber for channeling mostly anti-Obama attacks into the mainstream media, in order to create an impression of grassroots online support.

The use of the incubation technique is evident in a map of 8,000 blogs produced by Morningside Analytics for a joint investigation by Columbia University’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In addition to two large clusters of mostly longtime conservative and liberal bloggers, the map shows a ‘halo’ of about 500 relatively new blogs in two isolated clusters. One cluster includes several hundred anti-Obama blogs (orange) and the other contains several hundred pro-McCain and pro-Palin blogs (green). Most of them were created in mid-July 2007 or afterwards, and are listed listed on “blogrolls” such as McCain Victory 2008 and the NoBama network.

“There are some groups of pro-McCain and anti-Obama blogs that are well connected to each other but not densely linked with bloggers in the longstanding political blogosphere, even those on the conservative side,” said John Kelly, Morningside’s chief scientist and an affiliate of the Berkman Center. “If these were typical political bloggers, we would expect to see them better woven into the fabric of the network.”

Out of the nearly 500 blogs in these isolated clusters, at least 125 were seeded by a group of volunteers led by long time Republican Brad Marston—a McCain supporter since 2000 and co-founder of the McCain Victory 2008 blogroll. Although the group claims to receive no financial support or direction from the McCain campaign, Marston acknowledges he works so closely with the campaign that Meghan McCain misidentified him as the “McCain e-campaign coordinator” on her blog.

“Until recently, there was no way for any lateral communication on My McCain Space,” said Marston, referring to the social networking Web site set up by the senator’s e-campaign staff. “It was all about getting information down from the top of the campaign to individuals. That’s why we started the and and… social networking sites so that supporters could build a network.”

Many of the bloggers cross-post content on several Web sites and, in this way, raise the profile of key stories and videos on Google and YouTube. But they mostly link to each other, and while this can be a useful way for like-minded activists to network, this disconnectedness from the rest of the blogosphere “indicates it is not a particularly effective communication strategy, because these sites don’t draw much attention from established bloggers on the left or the right,” argues Kelly.

Despite their isolation from the rest of the blogosphere, these clusters of anti-Obama/pro-McCain blogs are useful in helping to generate a buzz for McCain’s attacks on Obama, notes Kelly. Many of these blogs in the pro-McCain cluster repeatedly focus on the extent of Obama’s association with Bill Ayers and the community group ACORN. These posts surface in Google searches about Obama, and give the impression of widespread outrage, which can frame news coverage.

A variant of this approach to using the blogosphere to relay messages was seen in the days after the Republican Convention, when the LM&O advertising agency registered a Web site and blog for the group Hockey Moms for McCain-Palin. Within a week, ABC News had profiled the group, and its co-founder appeared on Larry King Live. “I am a hockey mom trying to help women become involved in the campaign,” Kellie Boyle told King.

Boyle—a media strategist, longtime Republican campaign volunteer, and consultant for LM&O, where her husband also works—is not your average hockey mom. When CJR asked about the firm’s connection to the group and the McCain campaign, Boyle said, “I don’t know why it was registered to LM&O. I just put my work address.”

Shortly after Governor Sarah Palin joined the Republican ticket, a pink-themed social networking Web site called “Team Sarah” appeared, proclaiming itself a “diverse coalition of women dedicated to advancing Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy. Men welcome too!” A disclaimer at the bottom of the page alerts readers that it is paid for by the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund Project. This pro-life political action committee has reported spending $193,000 to support McCain. The group’s support was never mentioned when New Hampshire newspapers and television stations reported on a Team Sarah press conference, and Fox & Friends interviewed the group’s spokesperson, Jeri Thompson, wife of Senator Fred Thompson.

To be sure, some pro-Obama bloggers see themselves as willing conveyor belts for their candidate’s message. But these blogs tend to be focused on activism instead of punditry. Meanwhile, many high profile pro-Obama bloggers, such as Adam Bonin, a former law student of Obama’s who posts at DailyKos, told CJR that, for a long time, “the Obama campaign wasn’t doing any outreach to bloggers who wanted to get information out to the public. Their focus seemed to be on developing their own My Barack Obama platform and ensuring access through that community.”

Unlike McCain, who had to rally his base, Bonin claimed that the Obama campaign was not interested in reaching out to bloggers like himself because he didn’t want to be the “liberal” candidate. “It wasn’t a courtship that seemed to be a priority for the campaign,” said Bonin. “They just kind of said this is who we are, this is what the campaign believes, and if you like that, join us.”

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Renee Feltz is a fellow with the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.