Why the GOP Lost the Web Race

Republicans are rethinking their strategy at the RNC this week. In an excerpt from his new book, Eric Boehlert examines how they can seize Internet dominance—and possibly the next election.

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What a difference four years made.

In September 2004, A-list conservative bloggers, like the ones at Power Line and Little Green Footballs, were basking in the glow of their most famous campaign achievement: taking down CBS’s Dan Rather for using questionable documents in a 60 Minutes report on George W. Bush’s leaky service record in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Convinced that they had uncovered forgeries, the bloggers hatched Memogate and watched CBS clumsily try to answer questions that piled up about the 60 Minutes report.

When the conservative blogosphere matured, it did so within the framework of the established, GOP-friendly alternative media system.

But rather than using the CBS story as a stepping stone to launch serious online investigative work and to grow the right side of the blogosphere into an alternative and insightful newsgathering source or a netroots-like hotbed for political activism, the bloggers let their credibility slip away and embraced a kind of strategic mendacity.

By 2008 liberal bloggers had completely lapped their conservative counterparts in terms of influence and impact. Going into the White House campaign season, conservatives already trailed badly online. "For the most part Republicans are stuck in Internet circa 2000," a former Republican aide turned blogger complained to The Washington Post in 2007. The conservative writer Dean Barrett noted in The Weekly Standard that year, “The right-wing blogosphere doesn't hold conventions, doesn't win the attention of candidates, and more important, doesn't move voters the way the progressive blogosphere does.”

By November 2008, Republicans were losing the Web race by even wider margins. At the campaign’s conclusion, one GOP operative conceded online that “most [Republican] campaigns know absolutely nothing about blogs and do nothing with them.”

Rather than raising money for hand-picked candidates or launching policy initiatives the way the netroots did, right-wing blogs effectively marched themselves into a corner by routinely chasing thin conspiracy theories that led nowhere, except occasionally through the looking glass. (Some are still searching for Barack Obama’s real birth certificate.)

Conservative bloggers struggled online in part because they were permanently tied to, and spent untold hours, trying to defend Republican policies that were universally unpopular. But that explained just a small part of the conservative blogosphere’s failures as compared to the new heights liberals reached in 2008.

In truth, the two blogospheres had distinctly different DNA because they were born in different political environments. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, conservatives had already established their own alternative, movement-based media: the Republican Noise Machine. Built around talk radio, Fox News, and partisan print outlets, they were part of a political movement first and part of the media landscape second. They had a clear allegiance to the GOP and they eagerly embraced propaganda, endlessly repeating ideas, phrases, and images.

So when the Internet began to emerge as a political force at the turn of the decade, it wasn’t as if a vacuum existed among conservatives when it came to political discourse. They already had an abundance of established outlets where their voices could be heard and promoted. That’s one reason they were slower to embrace the Internet.

Consequently, when the conservative blogosphere matured, it did so within the framework of the established, GOP-friendly alternative media system. Right-wing bloggers such as Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt simply joined in the same conversations that were already being heard on talk radio and Fox News and in the pages of The Weekly Standard. Bloggers brought another microphone to an already crowded GOP media table and became an appendage of talk radio. They also adopted the same deficient editorial standards in the style of Rush Limbaugh. They embraced the old-fashioned model of experts dispensing wisdom to their loyal readers. For years, many of the major conservative blogs didn’t even allow readers to post comments, which meant that the conversation flowed from the blogger, that is, the pundit, to the reader.

Interaction was limited, as was the sense of a shared community. Consequently, because lots of prominent conservative bloggers showed no interest in leading a larger movement, for years comparatively little organizing, fundraising, or policymaking sprang from the conservative blogs. After all, that’s what well-funded conservative think tanks were for.

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By contrast, at the turn of the last decade lots of liberals were eager to find new, emerging media voices for political discussion, and when they spotted the possibilities online they flocked to the Internet. They were searching—they were desperate—for an alternative; because no, they didn’t view The Washington Post’s pro-war editorial and opinion pages, for instance, as a bastion of liberalism. Ironically, liberals were simply trying to duplicate online what conservatives had already built offline: a powerful message machine, albeit, a more factually accurate one. But in the process, liberals swung open their doors and created a far more democratic, organic, and interactive online environment than found at the top-down, pundit-speak conservative outposts.

The conservative blogosphere, or the rightroots, as it was sometimes known, was also cursed with bad leadership. Early pioneers failed to adapt to the ever-changing online environment. Free Republic and the Drudge Report represent two perfect examples. The early online anchors that came of age during the Clinton impeachment years provided Republicans with a prime Internet foothold, but over time both sites refused to adapt and ended up actually stifling conservative growth online.

As the conservative online commentator Patrick Ruffini noted online, the founders of Free Republic—once the Daily Kos of the rightroots in terms of size and influence and home to some of the most rabid Republican supporters—known as Freepers, “made the decision that they were going to hoard as much [Web] traffic on their servers as possible. Early on, links to blogs were verboten. If you expressed your own opinion when starting a thread, that was a “vanity” and it was frowned upon. And fundraising for candidates was strictly forbidden, except for those pet causes approved by the site's owner.” A frustrated Ruffini wrote in 2007, “Imagine how the history of the rightroots could have been different if Free Republic wasn’t still stuck in 1996?”

At the Drudge Report, a similar lack of foresight prevented any sort of political community from taking shape. The influential news site, with an enormous readership and its eagerness to emphasize Republican attacks during campaign seasons, also shuns all interactivity. Readers simply arrive at the site, scan the headlines, and either click on the links or exit. By contrast, the liberal answer to Drudge, the Huffington Post, operates as the antithesis of the conservative bulletin board’s time-capsule approach. Where Drudge’s site consists almost entirely of headlines promoted by staid, black-and-white links, the Huffington Post features an eye-popping look as well as an enormous stable of personal opinions from bloggers. Its exploding community of commenters regularly drown the site in daily debates and running conversations.

For years liberals bemoaned the fact that conservatives dominated talk radio and there seemed to be something in the DNA of liberal listeners that prevented them from tuning in to like-minded radio hosts for hours on end. With the Internet the tables were turned. Conservatives scratched their heads trying to understand the chasm and why there seemed to be a natural disposition on the left to embrace the nonhierarchical style of the Web and turn it into an oversize organizing tool, while so many Republicans simply demurred.

During the 2008 campaign, conservatives still dominated talk radio in terms of hours broadcast each week. But looking ahead to future campaigns and acknowledging the explosion of growth and influence of politics on the Web, which would party strategists prefer: a lasting advantage online or perennial dominance on the AM band? In 1998, the answer to that question was radio. By 2008 the answer was equally obvious: the Internet. Fact: Talk radio remained a nonentity when it came to fundraising for candidates.

The conservative blogosphere suffered bad leadership in another way: Lots of its A-list writers embraced conspiracies. Back in 2002, when Markos at Daily Kos and Jerome Armstrong at MyDD helped lay the foundation for online political activism among liberals, they could have built their pioneer sites around elaborate conspiracy theories about who “really” controls American power or who “really” plotted the 9/11 attacks, and at the time they would have attracted a sizable online following. But they didn’t take that tack; they understood that would have meant forfeiting actual political power. Instead, the duo focused on what Democrats needed to do in 2002 to grow a backbone and win elections again.

Many Republican bloggers proved unable to show similar restraint and foresight. Instead, they seemed to leap at every chance to hype what-if stories, only to routinely embarrass themselves when the stories imploded. Not only couldn’t right-wing bloggers resist chasing conspiracy theories, but they were often the ones hatching the irrelevant, half-baked plots.

Excerpted from Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changes Politics and the Press by Eric Boehlert. With permission from the publisher, Free Press.

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Eric Boehlert is senior fellow for Media Matters for America and a former writer for Salon and Rolling Stone. He is author of Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press as well as Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.