AmericanOpinion

Online eavesdropping

Internet pundits give rare insight into internal party debate.

By Jonathan Bradley

Toward the end of 2011, the Minnesota congresswoman and then Republican presidential aspirant Michele Bachmann had an interesting idea. Admittedly, interesting ideas are one of the things for which Bachmann is well known, and this one is fairly modest by her standards. Nonetheless, it’s one that deserves some consideration. The internet, Bachmann believes, wants President Barack Obama to win the 2012 election.

Anyone who has come across websites like the devout Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle or the humorous photo caption blog Obamarama might be nodding his head in agreement at Bachmann’s proposition. But the congresswoman wasn’t thinking of fansites curated by college kids; she suspected something slightly more sinister. A caller to a talk radio show, on which Bachmann was a guest, suggested the President has “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube in [his] back pocket.” Bachmann was quick to agree. “We have seen,” she said, “whether it is the head of Facebook or Google, it is clear there is an alliance with the Obama Administration, as well as with NBC.”

Without doubt, the Obama Administration has wielded the internet with great effectiveness. The President’s 2008 campaign took off with a lot of help from liberal bloggers who talked up the young senator from Illinois, and it benefited enormously from the web of small donors and young activists the campaign was able to assemble thanks to the internet. It didn’t hurt that the Democrats were out of power and so better placed to make use of the rallying and organisational potential the blogosphere offers candidates. But in 2012, with Republicans the out party, the impetus to use online media to harness political energy is with the GOP.

For now, the conservative internet presence is doing exactly what it’s supposed to: preparing for the coming electoral battle. In many ways, the right-wing blogosphere acts as an extension of more traditional forms of conservative media. Just as talk radio and Fox News propagate talking points to supporters and help party members work out which candidates they want to back, conservative bloggers have begun to play their part in these processes.

As Republican presidential candidates jockeyed for position in 2011 and prepared for the primary contests of 2012, conservative bloggers did their bit to establish the credibility of the various candidates and ascertain their fealty to Republican orthodoxy. Rick Perry’s views on immigration, for instance, were pored over in blog posts, as well as more traditional outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News, and the National Review magazine.

The experience of former pizza magnate and GOP candidate Herman Cain demonstrates how the blogosphere both crystallises and shapes the mood of the grassroots. On 31 October 2011, when Politico reported that two former employees of Cain’s had accused him of sexual harassment, the right’s instinct was to rally to the candidate’s defence. “We don’t know a lot of the facts,” Erick Erickson wrote the next day on the blog RedState, but he also predicted the allegations were insubstantial—a “nothingburger,” in his words. The story was proof, in Erickson’s view, that “people are finally starting to take Herman Cain seriously.”

The right-wing blogosphere did not march in lockstep, however. A week after Politico published the Cain story, the Washington Post’s conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin was declaring that “Cain is either the most unfortunate lobbyist ever to grace D.C., or he’s a pig.” And even RedState didn’t act as an unthinking mouthpiece for a candidate for whom it had sympathy; the site’s bloggers dismissed the Cain campaign’s suggestion the candidate was a victim of racism and that the story was the result of malicious leaking by Democrats. RedState also expressed concern at the ineptness of the Cain campaign’s response to the scandal as it metastasised.

Though many right-wing bloggers were initially eager to defend Cain against what they felt was an unfair attack, they did so with a range of nuanced views reflecting the debate would-be primary voters were having with their friends and neighbours. The online discussion over Cain’s credibility mirrored the one the party at large was having, and eventually, Cain found that the party base—online and off—was no longer willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had no choice but to withdraw from the race.

Parties have always had debates of this nature over the course of campaigns, but blogging permits voters to eavesdrop on the arguments as they’re happening. The process of interrogating the latest news and deducing its influence on the party’s interests began again for Republicans when Rick Santorum’s polling figures surged in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus. Was Santorum a credible conservative? Could he beat Mitt Romney? Was his popularity harming a better candidate? Blogging permitted rank and file Republicans to work out their views in real time.

As the election progresses, these public party conversations will become more common, and will influence the issues candidates talk about and the policies they focus on. Observers wishing to see the intra-party dynamics undergirding the news of the day should look to conservative blogs like RedState, Big Government, or Instapundit. And as Barack Obama moves from governing mode to campaign mode, his success in re-activating his base will rely in part on the level of support he draws from influential liberal blogs like Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, and Wonkette.

Representative Bachmann may have been speaking wildly when she proposed a conspiratorial alliance between Obama and internet companies, but the President is by no means willing to relinquish the technological advantage he built up during the 2008 campaign. One of the questions to be answered during 2012 is whether the Republicans have indeed caught up with the Democrats in the online stakes.