Lieberman defeat a win for 'Netroots' politics?

In taking down the incumbent senator, Ned Lamont relied heavily on Net. A sign of campaigns to come?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
It may have been frequently described as a referendum on the war in Iraq, but last night's Connecticut Democratic primary battle could also be considered an indicator of the Internet's future as a political tool.

Buzz about the political blogosphere and its potential power reached the national scene during the 2004 presidential race, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean made a name for himself with a campaign that was largely run online. Dean's defeat in the primaries, however, led many to believe that perhaps the Internet's potential as a campaign tool was overrated.

But now that 18-year incumbent and one-time vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman has failed to win the Democratic nomination for Connecticut's Senate seat thanks to millionaire cable-TV executive and political novice Ned Lamont, candidates from across the political spectrum may be looking at the "Netroots" more seriously.

Lamont's campaign had an official blogger, regular support from liberal mega-blog DailyKos, and a YouTube group called "Nedheads" that currently ranks 13th in membership on the popular video site. And most Lamont supporters are eager to paint Lieberman as quite the technophobe, a task made easier when the senator's official Web site mysteriously crashed on primary day. Lieberman's campaign suspected the work of malicious Lamont followers; liberal bloggers laughed it off and suggested that perhaps Lieberman's staff hadn't anticipated the amount of bandwidth they'd need to handle election-day traffic.

A Netroots turning point?
According to Lowell Feld, the official "Netroots Coordinator" for Jim Webb, the Democrat who will be challenging incumbent Republican Senator George Allen in Virginia this November, last night's primary was a sign that the blogosphere (or Netroots, a truncation of "Internet grassroots") has established itself as a powerful force in electoral politics.

"The enthusiasm and interest in (the Lieberman-Lamont primary) was incredible," says Feld, a Lamont supporter, citing the various blogs as well as major news sources that experienced bandwidth problems during the primary as a consequence of Internet users trying to find out the race results. "That shows you something right there."

"The Lamont campaign is the best example to date of a tech-savvy campaign," says Zack Exley, who worked at liberal political action committee MoveOn.org when it first emerged during the 2004 elections and later did work for John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential bid before branching out into nonprofit work. A tech-savvy campaign, he says, is one that "understands that the purpose of technology in politics is to get boots on the ground in the real world, and to actually sway voters and turn out voters in reality," a point sometimes missed by campaigns grounded in the online realm.

Lamont's best online tactic, according to Exley, was his first one: The Greenwich businessman's initial campaign announcement said that he would run only if 10,000 volunteers and donors pledged their support. "I think that was the most innovative thing that he did online," Exley observes, "and it really allowed his campaign to start so much faster than it otherwise would have. It allowed him to almost immediately generate powerful grassroots and financial support for his campaign." Exley thinks we'll see other politicians adopt that model, including those in the 2008 presidential primaries.

Besides the blogosphere's strength as a recruitment tool, it can help a candidate by simply being loud enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media, Feld said. "The interest (within traditional media) was enormous," he said. "Why was the interest so enormous? Sure, Lieberman was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, but was it that interesting of a race inherently? Once the Netroots really got in there and started publicizing it and getting enthused about it, it certainly ratcheted it up a few notches."

Yankee Group analyst Jennifer Simpson describes the Netroots as an emerging strategy for bringing together and publicizing already-existing political sentiment. "What we are beginning to realize about blogs is that they represent some feelings that are already out there. By making those feelings available on the Net, you are able to spread them." Prominent blogs, such as DailyKos on the left and RedState on the right, "can really begin to influence who's doing what." But Simpson is reluctant to make assumptions. "It can be very hard to assess the exact power of blogs," she said.

When asked about future implications, Simpson maintains that it's too early to tell, and stresses that a statewide primary election is very different from a national election like the presidency. The "blogosphere" represents "an ongoing and expanding array of tools" for political campaigns, she says, but national campaigns will need to reach a much wider audience and consequently will have to rely on both traditional and new media.

But that won't diminish the enthusiasm among the pro-Lamont crowd, excited over not only their victory but also the potential to further shake up the establishment. On both sides of the political spectrum, Lowell Feld says, "the Netroots is very difficult to control. It's a force, an independent force. You can try to guide it and shape it, but it doesn't necessarily succumb to that at all."