Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

Obama: How You Like Me Cao?

Forget all the theoretical talk about Obama's "relationship" with the the base, or the professional left, or the whiners. A concrete test of Obama's political strategy is playing out in New Orleans, which anchors one of the few Congressional districts that will probably swing from the GOP to Democrats this November.

Louisiana's second congressional district is so Democratic—and so Obamafied —that it topped the White House list of places to directly deploy the President this election. Obama cut a TV ad this week announcing that he "needs" the Democratic challenger, Cedric Richmond, in Congress. But here's the rub. The current congressman, Anh Cao, was the only Republican to vote for the House version of health care reform.* By not only backing Cao's opponent, which is expected, but also prioritizing the race and making a personalized endorsement, Obama is showing that partisan alliances matter more than the signature domestic policy achievement of his first term. 

Imagine that. Conservatives are beside themselves. 

The local backlash was swift. "Call on your friend President Obama [now]," taunted a conservative Louisiana radio host on Tuesday. "Cao should not expect any help from Obama," added the host, Jeff Crouere, advising Cao to go on offense.

Nationally, LA Times columnist Andrew Malcom is blasting Cao for ever buying into Obama's "nonsense" about a "renewed sense of bipartisanship." Now the new congressman is tasting grattitude "the Chicago way," Malcom explained. (Conservatives are also mocking Cao on Twitter.)

This little story is stupid but important—like so many things in politics. Bipartisanship has never, ever meant converting to your opponent's party. It means working with your opponent, in good faith, on governing between elections. Then you return to do battle during the campaign, making the case and seeking a mandate for your governing ideas. And on many ideas, Democrats simply disagree with Cao. He opposed the stimulus and the climate bill, for example, and his party is running an intense, obstructionist attack against the White House, thwarting votes and stalling dozens of nominees in the Senate. 

In the end, Republicans are drilling one more nail in a bipartisan coffin that is now mostly made of nails. Overall, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans have been rejecting every bipartisan overture since Day One (see "Mr. President, They're Just Not That Into You"). And then, the few who do back an Obama initiative apparently want the president to switch parties for it. Their supporters either deliberately misconstrue bipartisanship—or they actually don't get the concept of working together when you can and also campaigning on your beliefs. That, of course, makes them dismal candidates for sustainable bipartisanship.

*Cao ultimately voted against final passage of the Senate health care bill, saying it would "open the door" to federally funded abortion, but at the time of the House vote, he was taking a large political risk as the only Republican vote, and no one knew there would be a different package on final passage.

Why Do Liberal Attacks on the Tea Party Echo Attacks on Liberals?

Two of the Tea Party's most recognizable leaders, former congressman Dick Armey and CNBC anchor Rick Santelli, huddled on Saturday morning to assess the progress of their nascent movement in Manhattan. They spoke on a lively and sometimes prickly panel at the New Yorker Festival, moderated by editor-in-chief David Remnick.

Armey, who noted that he rejected a $750,000 job offer to serve as conservatives' unofficial insider-outsider, was proud, brash and at times indignant, defending his organizers against charges of political hypocrisy and racial resentment. Santelli stressed his split personality as a reporter who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. He disavowed any "proactive" role in the rallies and campaigns that were sparked, at least in part, by his famous televised rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

In a sense, the two men personify the tectonic plates beneath today's Tea Party populism. Connected, establishment conservatives with the reflexes of activists—rather than incumbents—are backed by opinionated media figures who combine the reach of national television with reruns syndicated on a hit channel called YouTube. Santelli was already influential on TV, but he only became powerful when he went viral. (Also see Beck, Glenn. He owes his huge audience and income largely to his activity on the web and radio, not to his Fox show.)

Indeed, historians may stress how the Tea Party rose at exactly the same time that traditional print journalism crashed into the earth like an asteroid, instantly sinking underground and far from political relevance. Some already are.

At the panel, Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who just published a book on the role of contested historical narratives in Tea Party organizing, said the "disequilibrium" created by newspapers' demise is fueling a new type of politics.

"Our political and newspaper culture were born at the same time," Lepore noted, pointing to the partisan papers founded to oppose John Adams. With the decline of print, she proposed, comes a decline in local news coverage, a demise of the local "form of community," and ultimately a distortion of "proportion""—where people have less sense of which developments are actually significant. We may even look back on this period, Lepore suggested, and realize that we spent far too much time on the tea party. Coming from someone who just wrote a book on the subject, that's saying something.

Beyond experts and participants, the panel also included one member of the loyal opposition to the loyal opposition: Anthony Weiner. The New York congressman has staked out a role several steps to the left—and decibels above—President Obama. True to form, Weiner dispatched Tea Party tenets with substance and relish. Since the vast majority of the federal budget goes to defense and permanent entitlement programs, he argued, the Tea Party simply cannot legislate its anti-spending rage unless it slashes the Pentagon or guts Social Security. (Weiner, in full wonk mode, made this point by saying that 91 percent of the federal budget is comprised of defense and non-discretionary spending. You get the idea.) Of course, Social Security reform couldn't even get a scheduled vote from Congressional Republicans in 2005, when (then-popular) President Bush spearheaded the effort. And electing Republicans to cut defense spending? You'd have better luck buying tempeh from a butcher in Weiner's Brooklyn district.

And yet. What's unrealistic to one voter is inspiring to another. Tea Party leaders, just like purist libertarians or radical progressives, like to begin with first principles and aim for fundamental reform. It is curious, really, how progressive critiques of the tea party so often sound like laundered attacks on progressivesyou're not being realistic, that's not how government really works, the numbers won't add up and, of course, your entire movement should be dismissed based on your most fringe members.

At the New Yorker panel, even a routine piece of political cant, "We want our country back," was criticized as a secretly coded response to the election of the first black president. Yet the same phrase was, as politicos may recall, a popular slogan among liberals after Bush's election. It was ultimately embraced by Howard Dean's presidential campaign. In 2004, the top Google results for that line were all about Dean (and one hit for a Tibetan independence site). Today, all the Dean results, along with the Tibetans, have been dislodged by Tea Party references. Rhetoric is flexible, and identity powers plenty of political activism, but we must be more careful in treating one side's freedom rally as another's race war.

Leave race alone, of course, and economic anxiety still usually stirs political activity. Tea Party groups say the major motivators were the bailouts, beginning with TARP under a Republican president, which Santelli stressed, and the financial collapse. Lepore rolled the history back further, pointing to the hardening of political and cultural divisions in the Nixon era, and a conservative conversation that increasingly turned on the axis of religion, rather than public policy.

"This looks more like a religious than political revival," she argued (a point that Glenn Beck frequently makes on his radio and television show). Just as preachers traveled up new routes on the Erie Canal in the nineteenth century, seeding revivalist movements in each town, Lepore said, today's Tea Party spreads through charismatic figures who idealize the founding fathers as "divinely inspired." Thus the founding documents carry the weight of scripture, and modern political debates turn on a sometimes bizarre competition over whose position would be endorsed by the founders. Lepore added, in closing, that the Federalist Papers suggest the founders would have recoiled at the notion of political debates bound so tightly by their ancient writings. After listening with a look of deep cogitation, Anthony Weiner spoke up, assuring the crowd that Thomas Jefferson "definitely supported the public option."

DNC Slams Journalist and Trippi Over Midterms Article

Campaigns often heat up after Labor Day, and a fighting spirit has clearly taken hold at the DNC, which launched an unusual defense of its midterms strategy on Thursday evening. 

Organizing for America (OFA), the field arm of the Obama campaign that was rolled into the DNC, released a lacing rebuttal to a new Time article reporting that OFA had become a shrunken "ghost of its former self." The article depicted OFA as an operation abandoned by voters and donors alike, while airing anonymous suggestions that campaign guru David Plouffe was sereptitiously using national funds to "rebuild an army for 2012 under the cover of boosting turnout in 2010." (Plouffe "strongly" denied the charge within the article.) Time added geographic fuel to the fire, too, reporting, "OFA is putting staff into such states as Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona, which have few close statewide races this fall but which are all prime targets in an Obama re-election campaign."

At 5 pm Thursday, OFA posted an official response on the DNC website and circulated the text to reporters. Like the White House, OFA rarely publicizes written rebuttals to specific articles—that would be a full-time job when the subject is the president—and the reply was also striking for its heated tone. Blasting Time's Jay Newton-Small as "a misinformed journalist" who did "poor reporting" with a "total aversion to the facts," OFA spokesman Lynda Tran hammered Newton-Small for relying on clueless or anonymous sources, and "falsely claiming that OFA is exclusively focused on turning out 'surge' voters." 

OFA also unloaded on politicos quoted in the story, slamming Internet strategist Joe Trippi for comments that "convey ignorance about everything from" post-election summits to ongoing field work, and bracketing the oft-quoted Charlie Cook with scare quotes as a "poor 'expert'" who "has never spoken to anyone at OFA nor attended any events with OFA supporters or staff."  Tran continued:

The author also cites the fact that OFA has been active in Virginia, North Carolina, and Arizona as evidence of her conclusion that OFA is more about 2012 than 2010... she leaves out the fact that OFA has offices in all 50 states and organizers and volunteers in all 435 Congressional Districts—an unprecedented field operation in a non-presidential year which has already helped win competitive races in 2009 and 2010... she was told that since January of 2009, 2.6 million new people have signed up for the OFA email list and 5.1 million people have taken action in support of the President’s agenda and his political priorities. Not surprisingly, these facts did not merit mention in the Time Magazine piece because they would have undercut the premise of the story the magazine wanted to write.

All told, the 850-word rebuttal was more than double the length of the original article. 

Time obviously struck a nerve. But the strong response is strategically odd—a short piece in the print edition of the magazine is unlikely to rock Washington, while the DNC reaction gives it legs. Before, most of the (few) links to the piece were by conservative bloggers, not a very vital or persuadable constitutency for OFA. Then DNC officials began sounding off, and the item got picked up in Politico (and The Nation). Ben Smith, a widely read Politico blogger, headlined a Thursday afternoon post on the dust-up, "DNC goes nuclear on Time, Cook for Ofa critique." Smith's tweet on the kerfuffle was even crisper:

"OfA incredibly defensive."

Chuck Todd, the NBC News White House correspondent who regularly deals with top Obama aides, tweeted in response to this Nation piece that DNC officials are "super-sensitive on proving OFA was a good idea." I also asked Time for its response to the response, and spokesman Daniel Kile emailed that the magazine “stands by the story and Jay Newton-Small’s reporting.”

On a personal note, I spent plenty of time on OFA while researching and writing a seventy-four-page report about the organization's first year. The touchy and sometimes combative stance towards independent reporting on display here is familiar—for a new school organization, OFA is pretty old school when it comes to transparency and dealing with hard questions from reporters and constituents. (I discuss its work and potential reforms at length in the report, so I won't rehash those points here.) 

Beyond the press, though, the core argument of the Time article seems off. The height of the 2008 campaign is not a logical or fair baseline for assessing participation in the off-season, and OFA has undoubtedly engaged supporters around the country with social, political and service activities, both online and off. (See the broad data above, or more granular indicators in my report.) While politicos gush about how a President can benefit from a mediocre midterm showing, the article offered no reason how such cyclical electoral politics relate to organizing, where relationships and long-term momentum are key. So I don't see any tension between a strong turnout in the midterms and a strong turnout in 2012—this is an area where the Plouffe/Stewart/Bird agenda for Obama activists is naturally in line with the Barack/Rahm ambition for a second term.

Update: Hari Sevugan, a DNC spokesman who worked on the Obama Campaign in 2008, posted two public tweets in response to this Nation piece, writing:

If OFA didn't defend itself and challenge the premise of the Time story, which you agree was off, who would have? [T]his was a conclusion in search of facts. The sensitivity here is with the press who don't like to be challenged.

Sevugan also tweeted in response to Ben Smith, writing, "A story based on a predetermined conclusion in search of facts to support it[,] while ignoring facts that don't[,] should be [challenged]."



New Feature Puts the Stalking in Facebook-Stalking (Video)

Facebook is more than a social network. It's the most popular website on earth outside of search engines, and increasingly, it acts as the most important unifying grid where young Americans connect with each other and access information. So when the site launches a new feature automatically enrolling its 500 million active members in an elaborate geographic surveillance program, it's kind of a big deal.

I could try to explain how Facebook's new Places program puts the stalking in "Facebook-stalking" -- a once-hyperbolic bit of Internet slang that has now caught up with reality—but the company launched its own creepy video to share the innovation (below).

The short version is that it's like FourSquare, a site that enables people to "check in" to locations and see if their friends are nearby. Well, it's like FourSquare if FourSquare forced you to join without telling you, and allowed other people to broadcast your location without your consent. Like so many other Facebook "innovations," this program looks like a bait-and-switch from the site's original offering (or promise) to users.

"Like most great new ideas from social media networks," notes blogger Cindy Casares, "you're already signed up for Places and you have already given your permission for your friends to tag you if they see you out at some place where they've checked in." According to the Facebook commercial, "now we have an opportunity to connect these two people who are just separated by a few yards or a few blocks and allow them to have a serendipitous meeting," a prospect that is "really exciting and cool."  While guiding readers on how to opt-out, Casares disagreed:

"No, Facebook. It's not 'exciting and cool.' It's annoying and creepy. If we wanted to connect with that person, we'd call them or text them or Facebook email them or any of the other 9 million ways we have of getting a hold of people we actually want knowing where we are. Also, you know what it's called when you're out on your own and someone you know is nearby and not knowing that you're around? It's called living your life."

Many of the pat responses to this kind of problem don't cut it, either.

"Quit Facebook," says some of the older set, when dropping Facebook today is like getting an unlisted telephone number. (It's an option, yes, but most people can't afford to be that hard to find.)

"Just opt out," say many techies, without acknowledging how that solution discriminates against millions of users who don't even know the what (or the how) of the issue. (I opted out this morning, h/t ValleyWag.) 

Facebook has become a powerful utility, and as I argued in The Nation three years ago, it should be regulated accordingly, with disclosure and transparency requirements that warn users about their exposure in advance, and a default opt-in program for new features that impact their privacy and security.  And that goes for all new features, not just the stalkerish ones.

Antler Attack Ad Launches in Alaska's 'Palin Primary'

One of the joys of following Sarah Palin on Facebook is finding political content you would probably never otherwise discover. This lengthy moose-shedding analogy commercial, from tea party conservative Joe Miller, is unique. It blasts Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski for being a an antler-shedding HuffPo Democrat, among other things. If you can make it to the end, the money shot has Miller, back to camera, toting two shed antlers. It's an Alaska thing.

Endorsing a primary challenge to a home-state sitting senator is fairly unusual for a former pol like Palin, but in Alaska, Palin is a rival to the Murkowski dynasty. Palin actually dislodged Ms. Murkowski's father, Frank, in another GOP primary in 2006, after scandals had dragged his approval ratings below 20 percent. But that was after he had appointed Ms. Murkowski, his daughter, to fill his US Senate seat, which he vacated to run for governor.

Got that? By the standards of Alaska politics, antler-shedding and Sarah Palin herself aren't even that wacky.

Here's the Miller attack ad:

White House to Obama Activists: Let Them Eat (Birthday) Cake

It is one of the enduring yet neglected mysteries of Obama's first term.
Why hasn't the massive, record-breaking volunteer and fundraising apparatus built during the 2008 Obama campaign exerted more influence in Washington?

On Wednesday, Organizing for America (OFA), which grew out of the campaign's 13-million-person network and is housed at the Democratic National Committee, is asking its members to throw "birthday parties" for the President. The big guy turns 49. Supporters can find local events on an interactive map and upload photos of Obama-themed birthday cakes. These are the kind of gatherings that can replenish social capital by bringing people together around Obama's personal appeal—there's no policy agenda or legislative strategy on the agenda and recruit volunteers for the mid-terms.  OFA has made some progress on this front, as I documented in a study about the group's first year, while coming up short on efforts to pressure Congress or tap bottom-up participation. 

The BBC's Katie Connolly has a new article about OFA keyed to the birthday drive, and we talked a bit about the tradeoffs facing the organization. Here's an excerpt from her article:

OFA is attempting to use the president's birthday to provide both a boost for the commander-in-chief and encourage willing volunteers for Democrats in the mid-terms. "The events that focus on anniversaries or that focus on the president as a personality or someone that people like and identify with tend to do well, so its understandable that they continue to try to tap that enthusiasm," Ari Melber, a writer for The Nation who has studied OFA, told the BBC. "However, everyone knows there is significant concern from Obama's base about his progress on changing Washington."... The Washington Post reports that, in what looks like a spot of campaign nostalgia, OFA is urging supporters to bust out their campaign '08 "yes we can" T-shirts, hats and buttons and wear them on Wednesday. But while recapturing that campaign zeitgeist seems desirable, Mr Melber warns there are risks, particularly for some of the most active campaign supporters who have become some of the most disillusioned.

"There is always a risk that if you only do these kumbaya events and you don't give people meaningful voice then they may tune out," Mr Melber says. "Most of these people would still like to see Mr Obama re-elected, so we are not talking about a real crisis in his political support. But walking around with a button or wishing the president a happy birthday doesn't really achieve anything either."

Another key factor, of course, is that the White House has generally boxed in OFA as a soft-touch for supportive incumbents and a message amplifier for administration message, which restricts the kind of strategies, activities and events they can sponsor. 


The entire BBC article is here and my OFA study can be viewed here or downloaded at the Social Science Research Network.


Discharged Gay Veteran Confronts Reid at Blogger Summit

"I wish things were as bad for progressives as progressives think they are."
That was one epiphany for Phillip Klein, a conservative writer for the American Spectator, after palling around with liberal bloggers for several days at the fifth annual Netroots Nation in Las Vegas this weekend. Klein was marveling at the melancholy suffusing the conference, given the Obama administration's undeniable legislative accomplishments to date. The healthcare bill "alone," he said, "is more than any liberal has passed since LBJ."

Now Klein could just be, in web parlance, concern-trolling for his political opponents. But his view coincides neatly with several of the political heavyweights who spoke at keynote sessions of the conference, when most of the 2,100 attendees gathered in a cavernous Vegas ballroom flanked by dark curtains studded with glow-in-the-dark stars. The flashy digs hosted Democratic Congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and liberal heavyweights like Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Van Jones, Richard Trumka, Majora Carter and Markos Moulitsas, who founded the blog that first spawned the conference.

The politicians hit the standard midterm talking points, an amalgam of Bush's 2004 governing message ("It's hard") and a Beatles ballad ("It's getting better all the time"). "The country would be a lot worse off if we weren't around," Harry Reid wistfully told the crowd on Saturday. No surprise there—politicians always have high job approval among themselves.

Many of the top liberal advocates, however, also sounded downright enthusiastic about the Democrats' incumbent incrementalism.

Van Jones, a green jobs activist who was Breitbarted out of his administration job last year, actually urged liberals to empathize with Obama's team. "This is harder than it looks," he said. "Having spent six months in the White House, it's a totally different experience when you're sitting there and the missiles are coming over the horizon at you." (Jones gave a formal speech and then did a question-and-answer session with me on Friday morning.)

Over in the breakout sessions, where attendees tested their wonk tolerance with more than thirty policy panels available each day, there was a wider range of views.

Sessions on "Right-Wing Populism and the Tea Parties," "Fighting the Right Wing with Racial Justice" and "Fighting the Right 2010" prioritized political combat. And a bevy of panels were premised on the administration's pale progressivism, including discussions of "Racial Profiling in the Obama Era," "Crimmigration Under Obama: Pushing Back," and a "Liberal Perspective" on Elena Kagan's nomination.

What would President Obama think of it all?

He did not attend in person, as he did during the convention's primary campaign edition, but took more of a chatroulette approach, uploading a video anticipating the community's skepticism.

"Change hasn't come fast enough for too many Americans, I know that," Obama said, "and I know it hasn't come fast enough for many of you, who fought so hard during the election."

Then the president passed the mic to one of the netroots' most beloved figures, even though she's never attended Netroots Nation, and played a clip of Rachel Maddow. The popular MSNBC anchor recently declared that Obama had achieved more in office than any president since prohibition.

Obama also cited two campaign pledges that are late or broken, depending on how you keep score, saying he was still committed to closing Guantánamo and repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT). A few hours later, one of the weekend's most dramatic, unscripted moments unfolded in connection with the military's ongoing exclusion of gay Americans.

Lt. Dan Choi was one of the first and most prominent soldiers discharged for sexual orientation during the Obama administration, and he has become a vocal activist for repealing DADT. Choi asked Joan McCarter, a DailyKos blogger, to present his West Point graduation ring to Harry Reid during a keynote session. (Reid's hometown session was carried live by only one cable channel: Fox News.) Reid had previously pledged to Choi that he would end DADT by 2009. First Reid said he couldn't accept the ring, just as he had declined one of his son's championship rings. Then members of the audience yelled out that Reid could take it and return it once DADT was signed. Reid agreed on the spot; Choi jumped onto the stage and the two embraced to a thundering standing ovation.

"The ring means a promise," Choi told The Nation after the exchange. "And that ring was my promise to serve, and that promise that Harry gave to me that he would end DADT by 2009 was broken. So now I had to renew that promise," he explained, "and it's a symbol of the promise to hold our friends accountable."

Choi added that Reid was the "most powerful" senator, so for him to claim he cannot do anymore for reform "betrays what it means to be a leader of anything."

White and Black Liberals Have 'The Talk' at Netroots Conference

Las Vegas
The fifth annual Netroots Nation kicked off in Las Vegas on Thursday, as liberal bloggers and activists gathered to organize and assess an Obama administration that continues to disappoint key planks of the left. One of the first panels, scheduled months ago, could have been ripped from today's headlines about Shirley Sherrod: "Fighting the Right Wing with Racial Justice."

James Rucker, the cofounder of a netroots civil rights organization, told attendees that media personalities like Glenn Beck had to be "undressed" and combated in a platform that they don't actually control. Rucker lamented that racial provocateurs like Andrew Breitbart, who does submit to interviews with traditional journalists, manage to get free press while escaping factual accountability.

An early, unscientific sampling of liberal conference attendees suggested a sour mood for the politics of the day. Across the hallways of The Rio, a bright, off-strip hotel that is budget but clean, people seemed pretty fed up with the entire Sherrod imbroglio. While the administration's mistreatment of Sherrod does not meet the scale of foreign policy or financial reform, of course, the rushed, reflexive capitulation to disingenuous opponents dovetails with a caricature of Obama's governing playbook, at least among some progressives.

Back in the racial justice panel, several speakers cast the Sherrod attack as politics as usual in the Obama age.

Rich Benjamin, who traveled through some of the most concentrated Caucasian neighborhoods in America for his book "Whitopia," proposed that racial tension lurked behind many of the domestic policy debates of the Obama era. "The healthcare debate was explicitly about race," he said, stressing how Joe Willson's "You Lie" outburst focused on tapping anger towards the false fear that the government would fund healthcare for minority immigrants. (Benjamin is a friend of mine, by the way.)

And all the panelists agreed that there is scant space for a genuine "national conversation" on race right now.

"White liberals are afraid to death," Rucker contended, to have frank conversations about resilient racial divisions in America.

Another panelist echoed Eric Holder's supposedly controversial observation that America shies away from racial dialogue. Tammy Johnson, a community organizer with the Applied Research Center, declared that today's leaders, and Obama by implication, do not have the guts to address race head-on.

One conference attendee pushed back on those sentiments, however, during the question and answer session.

Davey D, a disc jockey for Hard Knock Radio, stressed that many people and potential leaders talk about race in substantive ways—they simply do not garner mainstream media coverage. And the whole point of building a new media structure, he reminded fellow activists, was to cover and amplify new voices, not to lament the status quo.

If everyone had already forgotten that, he stressed, then "it's time to have a conversation with yourself."

For Palin's Facebook Friends, It's Complicated

With over 1.8 million fans on Facebook and one of the best small donor lists among national Republicans, Sarah Palin could route around her party’s establishment and still win the presidential nomination in 2012.

That’s the argument some conservatives are making after sifting through her latest FEC filing, as the Daily Caller reported this week, and it’s one rationale for the political media’s intense coverage of Palin’s every status update.  But are Palin’s “friends” and followers truly a constituency-in-waiting, or more of a passive media audience?

Palin’s latest foray into testing her online network turned out tepid.  Her professionally-produced video touting “Mama Grizzlies,” which drew tons of press last week, was only viewed by less than 2 percent of her Facebook fans, as The Nation reported.  So if Palin’s Facebook friends, who presumably like her and follow politics, didn’t tune into a video getting lots of political play, what exactly are they interested in?

On Facebook, it turns out that Palin fans are most focused on prominent Republican politicians and conservative media figures.  The top ten pages that Palin fans “like” include her potential 2012 rivals, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal; media stars like Glenn Beck and Dave Ramsey; and two apolitical inspirational figures—Michael Phelps and “God.” 

So for at least some conservatives, a Facebook relationship with Palin is more complicated than exclusive. (Some of the 1.8 million friends are less likely to back a presidential bid if their loyalties are split.) In fact, the most popular page among Palin fans would surprise most Palintologists.

It’s the page for John McCain, which roughly 27 percent of Palin fans continue to “like,” long after the 2008 campaign. So a sizeable chunk of Palin’s social media base may simply reflect her fame as a running mate, rather than deeper ideological or personal bonds. After all, in today’s GOP, McCain and Palin partisans rarely make common cause. (The data is from an analysis by Pete Warden, a former engineer at Apple who studies social media.)

The geographic distribution of Palin’s Facebook fanbase is more conventional. She has the most fans in her home state of Alaska and across the South, including Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina (an early primary state.) If Palin does ramp up a national campaign, of course, her supporters’ intensity and money will be more important than their location. 

Even if Palin’s media hype has made her something of a paper grizzly, some experts stress that she is still far ahead of most potential rivals. Dave Weigel, a chronicler of conservative politics, noted on Thursday that “even the lowest estimate” for Palin’s online audience bests conventional presidential aspirants like Tim Pawlenty.  And if the media continue to give monolithic, inflated treatment to Palin’s online network, she can retain a lucrative spotlight based partly on Facebook and YouTube theater. As Politico’s Ben Smith recently noted, Palin may prove to have more influence over reporters than voters. She may have trouble getting “supporters to click on a video,” he blogged, but “Sarah Palin is getting her money’s worth from the lamestream media.”

Sarah Palin, Paper Grizzly

Sarah Palin's new "Mama Grizzlies" video drew strong reactions from many reporters, politicos and critics. An analysis of viewer data, however, shows that Palin's video actually failed to reach or excite her base.

In the week since it was first posted on Palin's Facebook page, which boasts over 1.8 million backers, the video has drawn 368,000 views.  Yet despite her large following, only 33,000 people watched the video via Facebook, according to YouTube statistics. That means only one out of ten viewers found "Mama Grizzlies" through Palin's social network—and under 2 percent of her Facebook community watched the video. So who did watch "Mama Grizzlies"?

Mostly traditional news readers and Palin detractors.

Almost a third of all views came through an article on Yahoo! News, for example, while ratings for the video ran almost two-to-one for "dislike" over "like." "The bulk of the views seem to come after it had been covered in the mainstream media," observes Pete Warden, a social media analyst who has studied Palin's Facebook strategy. "She is still reaching a lot more people indirectly through the media than through Facebook and Twitter and the other direct channels," added Warden, a former engineer at Apple.

It's quite a feat. Palin blasts the "lamestream" media while claiming to commune directly with her base, which draws extensive media coverage for an effort that actually reaches a tiny number of people. Without the media assist, though, Palin would just be sitting on a Facebook page with 2 percent participation and a YouTube video with niche numbers. (As is, "Mama Grizzlies" is not exactly Double-Rainbow material; it would place below this week's top ten political videos for overall views.)  Some reporters are catching on. "I hope we don't hear from Sarah Palin about media bias anymore," Chuck Todd recently said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "because it is amazing the ability this woman has to get media attention with as little as she does, whether it's a Twitter or a Facebook update."

For tangible political impact, the distinction between symbiotic media coverage and direct mobilization is crucial. New research by political scientist Kevin Wallsten, for example, found that viral campaign hits like the "Yes We Can" Obama video, which topped 5 million views in one month, are driven by political organizing and citizen blogs, not traditional media coverage.

I raised this dynamic with an experienced political web operative—who did not want to go on record antagonizing Palin—and this pol argued that while Palin can drive magazine covers and book sales, her core political support remains vastly overstated. "More of the viewers were people critical of her rather than fans, although the lazy implication is for people to say, ‘Look at all her fans, she has 300k views on YouTube,' " said the operative, adding, "She doesn't have real support among actual people, even Republican primary voters. She is a self-perpetuating phenomenon of, by and for the media."

While Palin is undoubtedly a media force, when it comes to activating even her own core supporters, she looks more like a paper grizzly.

An official for SarahPAC, which produced the "Mama Grizzlies" video, did not dispute any of the statistics when contacted for fact-checking, or provide any specific comment to questions about Palin's online outreach. The official did include this closing in an email reply: "We kindly direct you to her Facebook page where she most frequently comments. Thank you for your inquiry."

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