Walking a Fine Line Online
Forget Republicans. Democrats are struggling to satisfy Net activists on the left
For the netroots, however, the moment to end the war is now. "They've been against the war from the start and have been passionately trying to get Democrats elected so they can end it," says a top Democratic strategist. "They feel it's payback time." The Senate is poised to take a different approach from the new House bill, which Bush has already vowed to veto. Still, MoveOn continues to demand that a withdrawal timeline be included.
In the presidential field, the netroots' antiwar fervor has hit New York Sen. Hillary Clinton hardest over her refusal to apologize for her Iraq authorization vote. In an April MoveOn poll, Clinton finished fifth. But Clinton Internet director Peter Daou says the online community is more diverse than it's often portrayed. Daou communicates with bloggers to correct misinformation about Clinton and to try to change perceptions of her. After the failure of the largely Internet-driven campaigns of presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004 and Connecticut Senate hopeful Ned Lamont in 2006, however, Daou is wary of netroots hype. "Does this energy and enthusiasm [online] translate into votes or contributions?" he asks. "It remains to be seen."
Timeline. Indeed, even as Democrats note that support for ending the war extends well beyond the party's base-a CNN poll last week found that 57 percent of Americans favor an Iraq withdrawal timeline-they privately express fears that embracing the netroots will brand them as radical leftists. After all, the same antiwar activists who fueled Dean's campaign helped bring him down by making him seem too liberal to be electable.
Still, Obama has vowed to use the Internet to attract previously apolitical Americans to his campaign, echoing Dean. Earlier this year, thousands of supporters signed up on Obama's website to throw house parties for him. He raised $6.9 million from online contributors in the first quarter of 2007. Obama chief Internet strategist Joe Rospars, who ran Howard Dean's blog, is working to apply the lessons of Dean's failure to transform online support into actual votes. The major one, Rospars says, is to integrate online activity into field operations through sites like mybarackobama.com. The site allows supporters to create their own organizations while letting the campaign capture their information and monitor their activity. But the MySpace flap illustrates the danger of exerting too much control. "The top-down campaign guys need to learn about working with the bottom-up online community," says Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's presidential campaign manager.
Trippi now advises the presidential campaign of former Sen. John Edwards. But even as his vehement antiwar stance has made him a netroots darling-he finished just behind Obama in MoveOn's poll-Edwards's online support hasn't spilled over to the national polls. That could be a reminder to Democrats that bottom-up online support may not put them over the top on Election Day.