Ned Lamont's Digital Constituency
Joe Lieberman's life as a Democrat ended on Tuesday with a fatal blow from Connecticut's primary voters. The voters' surging antipathy for Lieberman was stoked by many factors--the Iraq War, the President, the Senator, the surrogates, the pundits, the activists, the bloggers--but Ned Lamont's victory was driven by two triggers: First, the war elicited a primary opponent; then Internet activists convinced voters that he was a viable alternative. Yet the recent obsession with bloggers, by traditional media and Lieberman boosters alike, only reveals one component of the Senator's undoing online.
Bloggers actually constitute a small slice of progressive Internet activists, known as the netroots, which includes organizations like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America; informal networks like e-mail lists and MySpace groups; and Internet activists who use websites to raise money, broadcast videos and disseminate information. That is how Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas sees it. Just past midnight on election day, he emphasized that bloggers are "much smaller" than a third of the netroots, writing that it is "insulting" to focus on blogs instead of the real people who worked for Ned Lamont.
While famous bloggers deflect their own hype, it is clear that the netroots played an indispensable role in turning a quixotic, symbolic challenge into a decisive victory. The first netroots activist to break through in Connecticut was Keith Crane, a retired truck driver who sparked Internet rumblings against Lieberman in February 2005--without a blog. Crane had never even touched a computer until 2003, when he volunteered to work on Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and he still types with one finger. After Lieberman voted to confirm Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, Crane began a grassroots campaign to recruit a primary opponent and launched DumpJoe.com. Yet as a Democratic Town Committee member in Branford, Crane did not confine his activism to the Internet. While his website highlighted the infamous image of Bush kissing Lieberman, Crane also created hundreds of "kiss buttons" and Iraq stickers that he distributed in the parking lot at the state party's largest dinner in March 2005. He remembers that the buttons struck a nerve because "every car was stopping" to offer a thumbs-up.
Now that Lieberman has lost the primary and declared his independent bid, Crane believes the same approach will work in a general election. "He still can't defend any of his stances. He can't defend his vote on the energy bill or his position on Iraq," said Crane, amid the celebrations in the "bloggers' room" at the Lamont victory party on election night.
"The real hero in this is Keith Crane," said Kelly Monaghan, a 61-year-old blogger for MyLeftNutmeg, a Connecticut blog that predates the Lieberman resistance. "By handing out those kiss buttons, he created the psychic space for people within the Democratic Party to even think about possibly replacing Lieberman," Monaghan added, recounting the netroots' influence during a break from blogging election returns.
Yet Crane's early local outreach was significantly amplified by national bloggers. Back in January, Matt Stoller, a MyDD blogger and premier netroots networker, wrote a candid open letter weighing the race. Virtually ignored by the media and the Lieberman camp, that post outlined the perils of a primary challenge, including opposition from party elders; attacks against the campaign as reactionary; and the potential exacerbation of the bloggers' "crisis of legitimacy," since a loss would let people dismiss the netroots as futile "weirdos on the internet." It also fostered a debate of Lieberman's vulnerabilities and what messages netroots activists should take to the voters. Looking back this week, Stoller said his analysis has held up, though the race also revealed new problems for Lieberman, such as "disaffected union members" and the "insular stupidity of the single-issue group managers." (Prochoice organizations, for example, still backed Lieberman after his refusal to filibuster Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination, a move that surprised some activists who expected issue commitment to trump incumbency for issue groups.)
Stoller met with Lamont in February and introduced the new candidate to Tim Tagaris, a former Marine sergeant who was handling Internet operations for the Democratic National Committee. Soon Tagaris bolted that job to join the long-shot primary campaign, despite warnings of career suicide from DC-based operatives. He helped integrate local and national netroots activists to advance the campaign's top media and political objectives, including the successful effort to extract commitments from US senators to support the primary winner. Reflecting on that strategy this week, Tagaris said the netroots pressure turned a "simple question" into a "two-month news story," reminding Democrats of Lieberman's "disloyalty." It racked up political chits while reinforcing the most damaging charge against Lieberman in a primary. A former staff member of Lieberman's presidential campaign agreed on Tuesday night, conceding that "bloggers changed the narrative of this race" because "they legitimized Lamont for activists early on" and "reminded people about Joe selling out in the past."
Yet in the Connecticut contest, one activist's pressure campaign became another partisan's hate speech. Lieberman complained about the politics of personal destruction in his concession speech and accused techies inside the Lamont campaign of hacking his website on election day. (Lamont staffers denied the charge and offered to help fix their opponent's website, while national bloggers swiftly disseminated information suggesting the problem looked more like internal incompetence than sabotage.) For months, Lieberman's campaign decried the bloggers' aggressive tone, dispatching surrogates to equate some political criticism to anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Lanny Davis, former Clinton White House counsel and a current Bush appointee (on a government civil liberties board), repeatedly denounced the "hatred" on blogs during his defenses of Lieberman. He penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed on election day comparing "the hate and vitriol of bloggers" to Ann Coulter and Joe McCarthy, although most of his examples were from the comment sections in blogs, not actual bloggers' posts. Davis told The Nation that he thinks blogs are a "fantastic development for democracy" but added that liberals have a duty to identify and denounce the haters in their ranks.
Tagaris defended liberal bloggers, saying that attacking them as extremist and vitriolic "is the same thing that Republicans try to do with MoveOn," but the facts undermine such claims. "It's like they've never read a bit of mass communication theory over the past five decades. Early adopters of new technologies are generally better educated, more likely to vote," he said, dismissing most of the attacks as an attempt "to smear Ned's supporters to protect Senator Lieberman."
Some independent experts also see the recent attacks on bloggers as just campaign tactics. "Lieberman's best chance is to convince people that his opponents are extremists, and people who are unsophisticated in politics associate extremism with vitriolic behavior," explained Michael Cornfield, an assoicate research professor at George Washington University who studies Internet politics. Cornfield stressed that there is "no ideological bent" to netroots activists; the recent talk of bloggers pulling the party left relies on stereotypes, not data. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said surveys indicate that blog readers tend to be "engaged citizens" who are more likely to vote and participate in civic activities, but that there is no "significant partisan skewing" in the blogosphere.
There is a partisan skewing in political social groups, of course, with organizations like MoveOn attracting aggressive Democrats who are more inclined than traditional party activists to challenge incumbents. MoveOn raised more than $250,000 for Lamont nationwide, and the organization is very strong in Connecticut, with 50,000 members. About 146,000 voters gave Lamont his upset victory to Lieberman's 136,000. So even if only half of MoveOn members voted--a conservative estimate, given their typical turnout rates and deep involvement in this race--they would account for Lamont's margin of victory.
Tom Matzzie, who oversaw MoveOn's strategy in the Lamont race, said on election night that the results do not demonstrate the netroots' clout but rather its "alignment" with public opinion. "I bet 70 percent of people who voted for Ned don't know what a blog is," he said, but the public agrees with the netroots views about Iraq, Bush and the confrontational nature of national politics today.
As Lieberman's concession speech was replayed to jeers and hollers in the bloggers' room, another influential national blogger parsed the netroots' influence. "For years we have been telling a story about Joe Lieberman that has not existed in the mainstream press," said Duncan Black, who writes the Eschaton blog. That advocacy provided a "central catalyst" for groups like MoveOn, he explained, "to translate people on the Internet into voters, activists and phone bankers." Tagaris struck a similar note, likening the netroots infrastructure to a tower-building "Jenga board." The national bloggers reinforce the local bloggers, who recruit the activists who contact voters; and the press follows the national bloggers, who pull stories and videos from the local bloggers. "The structure will stand because there are so many people who are a part of what made this happen," he said.
In the general election, Lamont needs every plank in the netroots infrastructure either to force Lieberman to drop his independent bid or to convince the general electorate that his current conduct is as bad for the state as it is for the Democratic Party. That includes the crowd of volunteers, activists and bloggers who were still going strong at 2 am on Wednesday morning, as the instantly infamous concession speech played yet again on a hotel television.
"I will always do what I think is right for my state and country, regardless of what the political consequences may be," declared Lieberman, with his unique mix of sanctimony and delusion. Yet the "political consequences" were delivered that very night by voters in his own party. Rather than respect their will and accept the consequences, Lieberman plowed into an act of desperation, as out of touch as his paeans to "unity" in Washington, while voters demand change.