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The Netroots Battlefield in the ’08 Presidential Campaign

Declarations of the Death of Blogger Power Are Greatly Exaggerated


By Al Giordano
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

October 3, 2007

They called their movement Netroots: the bloggers and online activists that, four years ago, shattered what had been a neoconservative, 9/11-obsessed, warmongering domination of the blogosphere. They wanted change: Bush out of the White House, the Republicans out of Congress, and to wrestle the Democratic Party from its corporate influences.

There are tens of thousands in their ranks (more than 140,000 on the Daily Kos website, alone). On their multitude of blogs, they deconstruct media and political spin on the issues and events of the day and have dismantled many a Story of Mass Destruction in public opinion. They raise millions of dollars online, one small donor at a time, for Democratic Congressional candidates, and share a deserved part of the credit for the Democratic majority in Congress that emerged in 2006. The favorite 2004 presidential candidate of much of the Netroots, Howard Dean, onto whose star much of the movement was hitched four years ago, is now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

They have arrived as a political force to the point where the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates attended their Yearly Kos convention in August (an annual gathering that next year will be titled Netroots Nation) and the major campaigns now hire staff members assigned to suck up to them; a new species of campaign operative that is a cross between press secretary and constituent group recruiter.

And in the case of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (you can call him Kos), he’s still at the helm of the most important blog of the movement, the Daily Kos, and has demonstrably grown in his political judgment and acumen. He draws fire from rightwing bloggers and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and each time it happens he converts the attention into more recruits, which means higher hit counts, more paid subscribers (for a product he offers free of charge), and more advertising dollars, a sizeable chunk of which he spends giving fellowships to members of his team to earn a living wage while blogging. He’s a favorite guest of The Colbert Report, gets invited onto Meet the Press, does cameos on political TV ads and is courted by nearly every Democratic aspirant for statehouse, the US House, the upper house, and the White House.

And yet all this success has brought growing pains that become more visible to outsiders (or “lurkers,” in bloggerspeak), particularly in light of the 2008 presidential campaign. The Democratic Party insiders that used to openly scorn or just plain ignore the Netroots now whisper their resentment very quietly. The one Democratic candidate that didn’t attend the bloggers’ debate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, told Politico last month what his rivals probably think but won’t say aloud about the Netroots: “They say it’s their party. Like hell it’s their party! They are part of the party, like labor.”

Campaigns seek to reduce Netroots bloggers to a mere constituency group (and ATM machine for their war chests). They play them like they would any interest group in the party pantheon. Some of the B-list bloggers that orbit around the Markos sun seem more than happy to make themselves instruments of that cooptation. The Netroots thus veers toward a personality crisis, enticed by the new access and the adrenaline of the insider game, increasingly placing more importance on the visible respect they are given by candidates than on the core beliefs that got so many of them into this chaotic and horizontal movement to begin with.

It would be a Sisyphean task to try to define the Netroots, a la Matt Bai, and a cheap stunt to try to diminish them, a la David Brooks: By the time a photo can be snapped of the Netroots, the phenomenon quickly evolves, at a rate of mutation that would impress Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men. The Netroots elude easy definition (that’s one of their strengths, by the way).

The Courtship of the Nerds

Many in the Netroots often joke about their status as nerds, the computer geeks of political action, and they are, naturally, feeling newly charmed as the quarterbacks and cheerleading captains of the Democratic Party arrive to sit at their lunch table. It’s become part of the collective identity of Netroots that they now receive such insider attention. The underside is that, for many, it’s become one of their chief demands, and some confuse it with their reason to exist: pay us tribute.

A revealing dust-up occurred during the Yearly Kos convention in Chicago. The conventioneers planned a forum for the Democratic presidential candidates to appear together and also at “breakout sessions” where attendees could share time with them separately. But on the eve of the forum, the campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton announced that it had a prior commitment to attend fundraising events in New York’s summer home paradise of The Hamptons, and thus would not be able to attend the breakout session. This led to much hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth online, accusations that “Hillary has dissed us!” The conference organizers then doubled back to confess that Clinton had never, in fact, confirmed her appearance at the breakout session, and then the matter of whether Clinton had or had not “disrespected the Netroots” took on more heated commenting fury than, say, her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war.

For Clinton – who has been under 11 percent in each monthly straw poll of Daily Kos users in a stark contrast to her wide lead in national polls – the mere suggestion that she might pull the crack pipe of fawning attention away almost became the defining issue of the convention. Then the conventioneers cheered when the Clinton campaign made some changes in the candidate’s schedule so that she could attend a breakout session.

Weeks prior, when O’Reilly at Fox News was leading a campaign to get Jet Blue airlines to pull its “sponsorship” from the Yearly Kos convention (the donation of about ten air tickets), the Clinton campaign had sent its spokesman onto O’Reilly’s program to defend the convention and the Netroots in general. Those kinds of pandering moments have worked to disarm some of the movement’s skepticism about Clinton. In response to those moves, many in the Netroots seemed duly pacified, content to be just another interest group among many in the Democratic Party coalition and to be treated as such. It’s so new to them – this showering of attention – that at those moments the Netroots seems like a herd of rubes, easily placated.

But the Netroots rebounds from such moments rapidly: Clinton’s support on the monthly Kos poll actually went down a point between July and August, and after, at the Yearly Kos forum, Clinton had given a pathetic “lobbyists are people too” defense of her acceptance of DC influence money she was, and continues to be, fairly ridiculed for it across the Netroots blogs.

A more dangerous slope for the Netroots came in September, when Moveon.org’s full page ad in the New York Times (“General Petreaus or General Betray-Us?”) provoked a national controversy and resolutions in the US Congress to condemn the ad. (As Salman Rushdie commented at Bill Maher’s TV roundtable; in order to not talk about the war, the hawks talked instead about talking about the war.)

The Moveon.org ad was great for its sponsoring organization: It brought the group renewed national attention, more members and more donations as a result. And what liberal interest group wouldn’t benefit from a GOP-sponsored Senate resolution that condemned its advertising? (Even the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s controversial “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)” shock ad in 1964, associating opponent Barry Goldwater with the explosion of a nuclear war, was only aired once, to blacken the rival’s eye, and then the Johnson campaign changed the subject to other things. But Move On, once it generated controversy, kept mining and feeding the attention-to-it out of short-sighted self-interest.)

Whether one thought the ad hominem attack on the military general ordered to promote the Iraq war to Congress was brilliant or adolescent in conception, the controversy did take the antiwar movement – including in the blogosphere – off message for much of September.

And in some prominent corners of the Netroots, Moveon.org was portrayed as if it was part-and-parcel of the Netroots Nation. But it’s really something else, at least in terms of its mission. Move On is an interest group (one that was formed in 1998 to change the national subject from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton; “move on,” get it? Its very genetic code is Clintonian). Move On’s commonalities with the Netroots are that it promotes Democratic candidates, is against the Iraq war, and does most of its fundraising and recruitment online. But Moveon.org is entirely divorced from the journalistic and think-tank missions of the Netroots: in the Democrats’ schoolyard, it is part of the cheerleading squad, not of the debate society.

To the extent that Netroots bloggers let themselves be taken off message, with screeching claims that “an attack on Move On is an attack on all of us,” they dropped the ball on the big picture (i.e., ending the war in Iraq and chasing the GOP out of power). There are surely those that argue that the Netroots and Move On are joined at the hip, but it is those voices that seek to, in a way, corporatize the Netroots and make them, truly, another Democratic Party interest group. After all, most of the Netroots bloggers do it for free. They work day jobs and blog out of love and passion. That’s what keeps the Netroots real and with an outside the beltway perspective.

But the paychecks are on the interest-group side of the equation, and there’s no shortage of Netroots operators that expect to make a living doing the same. This is the most dangerous temptation that the Netroots faces (making Biden’s statement about Netroots being “part of the party, like labor” come true) rather than maintaining a separate (almost judicial) branch of party governance that provides checks and balances to the party’s considerable corporate vices.

Complicating the identity crisis is the fact that there are two key generations of Netroots folks: The veterans of the ‘04 presidential campaign and the more sizeable group of newcomers now blogging through their first. And some of the usual suspects from the last generation are the would-be shepherds to herd the lambs into the corporate slaughterhouse.

A Netroots Generation Gap

There is a kind of fault line between the earlier generation of Netroots that gained traction four years ago and the tide of more recently entered participants. It’s a generation gap not based on the chronological age of the participants, but, rather, of the learning curve of having blogged a previous presidential campaign or not. Four years ago (I was there, but today I simply lurk, although in 2004 we borrowed some formatting ideas from the Netroots to launch The Narcosphere here on Narco News) the blazing discussions and online comment debates on the major Netroots blogs, although with some rancorous moments, were more civilized and illuminating than they are today.

Back in the “good old days” (yes, time moves that fast online) Netroots bloggers had a sense that disagreements were guided by a desire on all sides to construct a more shared view of the facts on hand. We could disagree on preferences, while often agreeing on the realities that formed them. That was the beauty of knowing we were all outsiders and therefore, despite our manifold differences, all in it together. We had that in common. The gravitational pull now to bring the Netroots deeper inside the Democratic Party machine not only culls independent non-party-liners from their flock, but also threatens to turn the movement into a collection of special interest organizations of the kind that Ralph Nader founded in the 70s (and if bloggers hop onto that Nader track, how long until they become as frustrated as he did with the Democrats?)

These days, in the daily parse of each ’08 presidential candidate’s every statement and maneuver, the Netroots blogs seem more like a gigantic post-debate spin room, with each campaign’s acolytes trying to shoot down the rival supporters’ points, trading insults, and displaying a willful degree of dishonesty on all sides that reflects the worst of mainstream US politics. It’s akin to a talk radio show but without a host: callers just screaming at each other with no referee. The egalitarian beauty of the blogosphere – in which every voice counts, and everyone is a pundit or reporter – has decomposed into a shouting match between (mostly anonymous) commentators each insisting that he or she knows best.

The vibe today is more easily manipulated by the campaigns, which spoon-feed the day’s talking points through their own online operations while their adherents parrot the sound bites as gospel. The Netroots has gone from being a war room to being merely a war. And even an anti-war war begins to look and sound a lot like, say, what is going on in Iraq.

The good news is that this particular phase of Mad magazine Spy-vs.-Spy fisticuffs on the Netroots blogosphere will probably not last: It is part of the growing pains. As the learning curve that a presidential campaign provides kicks in, and the Netroots class of ’04 emerges from its previous heartbreak, the potential strongly exists for a Netroots surge larger than any before. That will likely occur in January, when the first presidential caucuses and primaries narrow the Democratic field. More on that in a moment, but first a little sunlight upon the part of the current maladies of the Netroots that comes from some of their old-timers.

The New Naders?

Some of the earlier generation Netroots bloggers have fallen right into the vices that the movement set out to combat. Once the enemies of conventional wisdom and its adherents, some seem to simply wish to replace one pundit class with their own. They seem to really believe that, when it comes to electoral politics, they, as individuals, do know best, and their spin is largely guided by which campaigns provide them special access and ego stroking.

That particular tendency among some Netroots pioneers has turned them into the faux-outsider version of DC pundits and international news correspondents. Hack writers that are spoon-fed their columns and stories by political interests or Embassy press officers are nothing new. After all, when the “facts” of a story – or a blog entry – come pre-packaged, less time is required to do the gumshoe work one self. A reporter or columnist – or blogger – can simply fold the provided factoids into a narrative in the same way construction contractors assemble prefab housing.

The worst offenders tend to be former political campaign staffers or consultants that did not show impressive results in that career choice, but learned enough of the lingo of campaigns to project themselves to the newbies as all-knowing. One blogger that gets a lot of media attention (mainly because he’s the former business partner of Kos, who calls him the Blogfather) is Jerome Armstrong of MyDD. Armstrong, 43, became interested in politics after 2000, and staffed former Virginia governor Mark Warner’s uninspiring courtship with a presidential run last year. His blog has become the site of a 24-hour food fight between Clinton, Edwards, and Obama supporters in the comments sections. And Armstrong often supplies the gruel to be flung: Conscious that he can’t bring the blogosphere along to support a candidate it distrusts for president, and claiming not to favor Clinton himself, Armstrong is reduced to inside-baseball grumbling and dismissive yet poorly substantiated put-downs of the front-runner’s Democratic rivals.

Last June, Armstrong wrote: “I don’t have a dog in the race, and voted ‘other’ in the MyDD poll. But I gotta tell you, this race is Hillary Clinton’s to lose at this point. I wish to be wrong, and see Obama or Edwards get the nomination, but I honestly don’t see it happening from this vantage point, and it’s very frustrating.”

So far so good, in terms of being in tune with his Netroots comrades: but Armstrong has a trademark way of following up such neutral-seeming statements with others that reveal the resentment that guides him. In this case, he added: “it’s the fake self-proclaimed ‘movement’ that exhausts me of Obama. I say fake, not because ‘movement for change’ and ‘building a movement’ are such vacuous slogans, but because the continual touting of having such a movement in the Obama campaign email slog is a sure-as-heck signal that there really isn’ a substantive movement behind the numbers.”

But really: what does Armstrong himself know about movements? Has he ever built one? (And no, he can’t take much credit for the growth of the Netroots either.) He’s had few consulting gigs with Democratic politicians: that’s it. As usual, there’s no there, there to his arguments, which he doesn’t substantiate with demonstrable facts (a big blogger no-no). He whacks Obama’s campaign manager and strategist (had Armstrong’s Warner gambit been more successful, he’d be in the middle of things just like they are) for not being movement types, but conveniently ignores Obama’s own background as a community organizer: a hundred times the movement guy that Armstrong ever will be. The dominant emotion Armstrong projects is envy. When he wrote that slam, Obama was on the cusp of announcing a record-breaking 258,000 (mostly small) donors to his campaign (later to grow to more 350,000 with almost half the donors repeating their investment). Like it or not, that reflects a serious movement.

Recently seceded from Armstrong’s MyDD (which averages more than 17,000 visits per day) were three bloggers that formed their own new venture (if they mentioned where the capital came from to do it, I must have missed that disclosure) called Open Left (averaging more than 6,400 visits per day). Despite its confederacy from Armstrong, Open Left’s Matt Stoller and to a less obnoxious extent Chris Bowers likewise seem dedicated to giving the Clinton campaign oxygen in a blogosphere that is innately distrustful of it, yet without admitting that desire out loud. (The third partner in the venture, Mike Lux, isn’t grinding the same axe, at least not yet.)

The latest salvo from the Open Left duo was to appear in a TV ad paid for by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign to endorse his Iraq policy but not, they say, the candidate. I believe them: the ad was, for them, not an endorsement of Richardson, but a superficially backhanded stab at slowing Obama (or Edwards) from coalescing the anti-war vote behind one of them. Qui bono? Clinton. Duh. And it was also self-serving; making them seem as more influential players than they are; a symbiotic parasitical relationship between Open Left and the Richardson campaign in which either would suck the life out of the other if it could to its own benefit.

Stoller is prone to insistent and absolute political predictions that that quickly become disproved by human events, among them unsubstantiated declarations such as that field organization doesn’t really matter. (The repeated embarrassments of Stollerism have also become grist for the right wing to discredit Netroots as a whole, but, hey, they spell his name right!) But how would Stoller know about field organization anyway? His electoral campaign experience, from one that presumes such expertise, is very limited; in 2005 he was blogger-in-chief for New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s campaign and also worked on two campaigns that did not succeed: they are listed on his wikipedia resume. (Disclosure: I’ve never met Stoller but in 2004 I was invited as an unpaid front-pager on his now-defunct The Blogging of the President site; I resigned from it not too long after that.)

Bowers, less annoying and with a penchant for numbers, claimed earlier this year to be supporting Edwards for president. If that’s still the case after the June launch of Open Left, he’s not being very vocal or effective at it. Also of limited hands-on campaign experience, Bowers works various mathematical formulas to measure the bounce offered candidates by the early Iowa and New Hampshire contests, and likes to post maps of the United States colored red and blue by which Democratic and Republican presidential candidates win polling face-offs against each other and how many electoral votes they’ll get. The methodology in both cases is severely flawed: the paint-by-numbers map merely shows that the candidates with highest name recognition (Giuliani and Clinton) have… the highest name recognition. And the “bounce” formulas are based on averages from previous years that vary significantly and don’t adequately take into account the exponentially larger money chests that the two leading Democratic candidates wield for ’08. The hocus-pocus numbers game is neophyte, and from the general lack of comments he generates with it I doubt that anyone’s really buying the math any more than I am. Bowers’ candidate is Bowers and whatever spin gets him attention. That said, at least he’s not overly malicious.

It’s not clear if the malice of Stoller or Armstrong show ideological commitment to Clinton that they won’t disclose aloud, or if they’re just innately hostile to the kind of movement organizing that Obama in particular could teach both of them volumes about, or if it’s simply the access and spoon-feeding that keeps them whacking Clinton’s chief Democratic rivals. But the way that the Clinton campaign works constituency groups, applied now to bloggers, has created a Netroots sub-class of “insiders’ outsiders,” of which those two are emblematic.

Call it blogging by barnyard epithet: On September 12, Stoller declared Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign to be done. A week later, Obama was also a “putz.” Stoller’s continuing obsession with Obama brought a second tantrum on that date, a directed at the candidate’s top campaign staff members: “here’s a shout-out to the crappy Obama advisor circle, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Jim Margolis, Devorah Adler, and the whole gang out there. You suck!” Five days after that, Obama was, according to Stoller, dead. Is it any wonder that parts of the Netroots have become like a high school cafeteria when its front-pagers are the ones tossing the food trays?

It is in that context that Kos’ more deliberative approach to the ’08 campaign is admirable, and helps explain why The Daily Kos enjoys more than 454,000 visits a day; 26 times the traffic of Armstrong’s site and 70 times that of Stoller’s.

Kos, four years ago, was a Dean supporter, perhaps his most important backer, really. To understand Kos’ reluctance to endorse a candidate in this round, a trip down memory lane is helpful. It would be especially edifying for those that weren’t around to observe it, particularly those “Kossacks” (what Daily Kos participants often call themselves) that seize upon this year’s polling numbers to herald what some insist – and others fear – will be the coming coronation of the next President Clinton.

Kos’ Coming of Age

As the media touts Clinton’s towering lead in national polls and the “inevitability” of her nomination, it’s déjà vu all over again. A walk back down Netroots memory lane, circa 2003, should help clear the air of the silly static. Clinton will likely remain atop the polls through 2007, but then it will be show time: that turning point in the process when voters blink and surprises can and often do occur.

In 2003, Kos disclosed on the front page of his website that he did technical consulting work for the Dean campaign. But his pluralistic approach drew not just Deaniacs, but also supporters of the draft General Wesley Clark efforts (and of Clark’s subsequent campaign) and backers of other candidates – US Representatives Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich, US Senators John Edwards, John Kerry, Carol Mosely Braun, Bob Graham, and citizen Al Sharpton as well. If there were supporters of US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who began that campaign as the frontrunner (like Senator Clinton this round), and was the party’s previous vice presidential nominee (like Edwards this time), they were not plentiful on Daily Kos, which had in its DNA the crusade against the Democratic party centrists that Lieberman embodied at the time and that Clinton embodies today.

In mid-summer 2003, Lieberman was in the lead nationwide: Lieberman 21, Gephardt 16, Kerry 15, Dean 11, Edwards 6, Braun 6, Sharpton 5, and everyone else with less.

When Clark got into the contest in September ’03, he took a chunk out of Lieberman and the percentages shifted a bit: Clark 14, Dean 12, Lieberman 12, Kerry 10, Gephardt 8, Sharpton 7, Edwards 6 and the rest under five percent.

Then, as now, Iowa – where voters pay attention earlier and are courted most heavily – was showing different preferences than the national polls. Back in August of 2003, an Iowa poll was published on DKos with these percentages: Dean 25, Gephardt 21, Kerry 17, Lieberman 12, Edwards 6 and Clark 3.

Also in September of ‘03, Dean had taken a commanding lead in the first primary state of New Hampshire: With Dean at 40 percent and Kerry at 17, and the others under ten, the NH contest looked virtually identical to today’s polling between Clinton and Obama in the Granite State. Pollster Zogby had this to say:

“This is stunning. Dean leads 43-20 among Democrats and 35 to 11 among Independents. He hits 40 among all age groups, union and non-union voters. His lead is 57-17 among self-described progressives, 50-20 among liberals, and 34-14 among moderates. Married voters give him a 38-13 edge and singles a 45-21 point lead. He holds huge leads among all education groups, among investors and non-investors, men and women. This qualifies as juggernaut status. Can he be stopped?”

Sound familiar? Substitute the word Clinton for Dean and the spin is a match to that spoken today by the Grand Mentioners of the conventional wisdom. The Kossack class of ’03 bought it, too, hook, line and sinker. As of October 19, 2003, 85 percent of Daily Kos users believed Dean would win the New Hampshire primary. As Dean started to expand his national polling numbers (much as Clinton is doing at present) it was considered simply a fait accompli that this front-runner would stick. And it went on that way for most of the rest of 2003, except that Iowa would remain tough to call. As of November, Gephardt jumped into the Iowa lead, but Dean remained a punishing 19 points over Kerry in New Hampshire.

By late November, Dean was beating Kerry even in the senator’s home state of Massachusetts. By December 8, Kos himself cited the “Air of Inevitability” around the coming Dean nomination, but smartly hedged his bet:

“I’m not arguing Dean is inevitable. He isn’t. There are still far too many factors that could come to play.”

Still, nobody, not even Kos, saw John Kerry sneaking up from behind. Kos wrote in that same post:

“I do think Clark is the only viable opposition to Dean.”

Having learned from the lessons of ’03 and ’04, Kos isn’t making such proclamations this season (lessons that conventional pundits and some B-list bloggers clearly haven’t learned). It’s Kos’ refreshing acceptance that he doesn’t know-it-all that makes Kos the most “A” of the A-list Netroots bloggers this time around. After all, Kerry still seemed to be in trouble until the very end of 2003. Between November and December Dean increased his national lead over Kerry from nine to 19 points.

Iowa’s Aversion to Front-Runners

One of the first observers to sense something amiss in the ’04 nomination battle poll numbers was the dean of Iowa political reporting, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, who on December 18 wrote:

“There’s another political story developing in Iowa: the improving position of John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator has been quietly doing things here that are improving his caucus prospects. Evidence of his success comes in a Pew Research poll released 10 days ago. That survey of likely caucus-goers showed Dean with 29 percent, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt with 21 percent, Kerry at 18 percent and John Edwards at 5 percent.

“In other words, Kerry is within 3 points of Gephardt for second.

“If Kerry were to upset Gephardt for second place, that would amount to one of those “unexpectedly strong finishes” that dominates news coverage on caucus night. Many in the political community “expect” Dean or Gephardt to win and the other to come in second. If Gephardt finishes second, goes this conventional wisdom, he’s a gonner because he won Iowa in 1988 and will have failed to repeat the feat.

“A second-place finish for Kerry would be a legitimate Big Deal and would position him as the anti-Dean candidate in the race.”

Pay close attention to part of the expectations game in Yepsen’s prophetic statement: Gephardt, because he had won Iowa in 1988, had to beat or match his own prior position there in order to beat expectations. This year, that factor works against John Edwards, who placed second in Iowa in 2004 with 32 percent of the caucus delegates. Edwards isn’t just running against Clinton, Obama and the rest: He’s also running against his own shadow of his strong position in Iowa four years ago. Even a narrow win by Edwards that doesn’t meet or surpass his 32 percent finish last time (when more candidates divided up the percentage pie) will be spun by his rivals as a setback. Whether that spin sticks to him or not is a hypothetical that can’t be answered in advance, but it does raise the bar for him at least somewhat, and provides a momentum opportunity to any candidate that might come in second if Edwards finishes first in Iowa.

Speaking of Iowa in the present, a line graph of the trends, over time, in polling, published on Wikipedia, doesn’t bear good news for Edwards’ hopes there:

It shows Edwards trending in a straight downward line since last November, with Clinton and Obama trending correspondingly upward. That graph doesn’t include the newest survey, by Newsweek, that has Obama, among likely Iowa caucus-goers, with 28 percent to 24 for Clinton and 21 for Edwards. It suggests that more former Edwards voters are breaking toward Obama than they are toward Clinton, and that, if the case, will raise the upward angle of Obama’s line graph while slowing Clinton’s to a flat line. But those poll numbers, too, are still very early to draw certainty in conclusions (and that recent one in particular had a very high seven-point margin-of-error, due to the small size of the sample). The truth is that Iowa remains a statistical three-way tie in the polls.

December will be D-month for each of the candidates, so let’s continue our look back at December of 2003.

On that same December 18, Kos, among many, still thought it was Dean’s to lose:

It is clear that our nominee will be either Dean or Clark. No one else has a shot. Therefore, I will not criticize or point to criticism of either of those two candidates.

In six national polls published that same day, Kerry was down by between 13 and 24 points nationwide; in four of them he was behind by at least 20 points. At the turn of the New Year, Dean was still way ahead of Kerry nationwide, by 22 points, 37 to 15, and was 25 points ahead in New Hampshire. By January 15, Dean maintained
a 20 point spread over Kerry in the Granite State.

Four days later, on January 19, came the Iowa caucuses.

Prior to Iowa, Dean had it all: A big lead in the polls, and a bigger lead in fundraising than Clinton enjoys today (essentially tied with Obama, and probably still a bit behind, in the money race; more will be known after October 15). But Iowa’s Democratic Caucus voters cut the front-runner down, and then the famous “Dean scream” – “Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh!” – on national TV, on caucus night, echoed into New Hampshire. (Those that argue that media attention to the “Clinton cackle” – a trademark laugh the Senator expresses when asked tough questions – is somehow unfair to the candidate because she is a woman have short memories of how vocal inflections of candidates, male or female, do effect voters’ perceptions of them. It’s just as possible that the Cackle will become The New “Aaaarrrrgggghhhh.”)

On the day after the ’03 Iowa caucus, Gephardt dropped out of the race, as Kerry solidified his position as the anti-Dean heading into the New Hampshire primary eight days later on January 27. The NH results: Kerry 39 percent, Dean 26, Clark 13, Edwards 12, Lieberman 9, Kucinich 1, Sharpton 0.

Two days later, on January 29, the news came out that the Dean campaign, although it had raised more money than any Democratic candidate in history, was out of cash. Kos commented:

“Dean is broke. The news is shocking, but the campaign is reportedly at $0. $40 million reduced to $3 million on hand, and $3 million in debts (the campaign disputes those figures, but paychecks have been deferred). The campaign won’t air ads in any Feb. 3 state, saving its dough for Washington, Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s not a bad strategy, given the campaign’s dire straits. But its further evidence of a campaign in crisis.”

Dean never came up for air again. John Edwards emerged as the chief rival to Kerry, but Kerry had the money to pummel him in state after state. And the rest of the history, leading to a Kerry-Edwards ticket, is well known enough to spare repeating.

What Is Different This Round?

I’ve made the argument in a recent Boston Phoenix essay that next January’s Democratic primaries won’t necessarily determine the winner, although they will narrow the field. The Clinton and Obama campaigns have learned important lessons from the Dean campaign: both will likely have the sufficient millions for a protracted battle from which neither may gain the upper hand until, say, March 4, when Texas, Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island vote. (After I had submitted that story to The Phoenix, but before it was published, Dan Balz of the Washington Post offered a similar take, but others don’t seem to be looking that far ahead beyond January yet.)

Short of a punishing victory by Edwards in Iowa, one that beats not only his rivals but also the expectations upon the man that garnered 32 percent there four years ago, or a surprise first or second place finish there by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, or Senators Joe Biden or Chris Dodd, or a fatal stumble by Clinton or Obama, this will probably become a two horse clash of the titans after the Iowa caucuses. Obama is gearing up for the February 5 Tsunami Tuesday contests, already with staff and offices in California, Missouri and Colorado. The only reason, in past cycles, that the early states have knocked candidates out of the race is that those campaigns had blown their TV ad wad and then had no momentum for further fundraising. 2008 – thanks to the record fundraising amounts in the Clinton and Obama kitties – marks the first time that more than one candidate has the financial staying power for a protracted battle.

Which brings us back to the Netroots.

The candidate at present with the most Netroots support is John Edwards. He’s won each monthly poll at Daily Kos, with Obama in second, and Clinton sometimes running behind even Richardson or even Kucinich. The Netroots, in general, aren’t buying the Clinton front-runner brand any more than they did Lieberman’s four years ago, and for essentially the same reasons; they don’t trust the senator on “war and peace” issues and the influence-buying sources of her campaign money leave a metallic taste in the mouths of many.

And so if this becomes the two horse Clinton vs. Obama race that is likely to emerge from the early caucus and primary states, it really won’t matter if some of the B-list bloggers at MyDD or Open Left or anywhere else suddenly uncloak their pre-existing preference for Clinton and urge all to “rally behind the front-runner.” The undertow may drown them: The overwhelming majority of the Netroots is very likely, if handed that deck of cards, to pick the Obama ace. And that reality-based conversion can already be seen in the comments of many Edwards supporters in the blogosphere that promote an “Edwards-Obama” ticket or openly acknowledge that they’re with whomever can best Clinton.

The shift may already have begun, with Edwards’ announcement last week, at the end of a poor fundraising quarter, that he will opt into public financing of his campaign, accepting an overall $50 million spending limit on his nomination and some very restrictive state-by-state limits on advertising in particular. After all, the choice by Clinton and Obama to opt out of those limits was formed by the Dean campaign exactly four years ago. I recall arguing at the time, on The Daily Kos, against the burgeoning Netroots position that this was a necessary step because, they claimed, that the Democrats would have the capacity to out-raise the Republicans with small-donor money. I didn’t believe it then. But history proved the Netroots to be correct about that.

The extent to which the small-donor strategy is a formative tenet of the Netroots approach to politics can be found in a story this week on Reason magazine’s Hit & Run blog. It reminded that political consultant Joe Trippi, who was Dean’s chief strategist four years ago and who now plays that role for John Edwards, told Salon.com later in 2004 that opting out of those fundraising limits was “the most significant event” of the Dean campaign. It was:

“…the ‘four days in November’ when Dean opted out of public financing, followed by Kerry. ‘That’s when 300,000 Dean supporters screwed up Karl Rove’s plans,’ Trippi recalled, by telling the former Vermont governor it was OK to reject public financing, long a pet cause of progressives, to use his amazing Internet base to challenge the GOP’s cash dominance – which allowed Kerry to follow suit.

“Republicans ‘just didn’t believe it,’ Trippi recalls. ‘They thought those goody two-shoes progressives would stay with public financing while they opted out.’ And in the end, Trippi insists, Dean’s decision helped Kerry, who’s been able to raise $182 million to Bush’s $215 million this primary season, as opposed to the $45 million he’d have had to spend if he’d stayed with public financing.”

The huge campaign war chests of Obama and Clinton are the latest manifestations of a small-donor strategy that grew up together with the Netroots. It’s a lesson that the Clinton campaign hadn’t yet learned in the first half of this year, when 70 percent of its funds came from donors of the maximum $2,300 apiece. But in the third quarter the Clinton organization put a heavier investment in soliciting what it says were 100,000 smaller donors: a claim that will be vetted after Federal Elections Commission quarterly reports are in October 15, both for its veracity and to find out how whether those donations represent a kind of Astroturf in terms of how much money was spent to bring in those contributions. Regardless, though, of how the money was raised, Clinton now has Obama’s staying power to battle late into the primary process.

Kos has forcefully argued in recent days that Edwards, even if he emerges as the nominee, would handcuff himself from beating back GOP advertising attacks until after the Democratic National Convention with the overall $50 million limit he has accepted to gain public financing. And in a revealing and honest assessment of his remaining options in the field, Kos wrote on September 28:

“I love Edwards on the merits. A lot. But not enough to put the White House at risk. So let’s see, that leaves me with two tentative choices for my Feb. 5 vote—an Obama afraid to engage in the politics of substance and clarity, and a Dodd that hasn’t shown he can win.”

He left some wiggle room by referring to “tentative choices,” but it’s clear that in a Clinton-Obama prizefight, the mighty Kos’ heart is with the underdog. And more importantly, it’s that position that resonates most comfortably with the general mood of the Netroots denizens.

January may well produce a two-sided battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party: Obama vs. Clinton. And the Netroots may finally get the objective historical circumstances to fight and win the redefining presidential campaign that they had hoped for in 2004.

And those that today deride the Netroots, or underestimate their capacity to jolt low-dollar fundraising when a critical mass of them coalesces around a cause, may find themselves surprised by it again.

The Netroots fell in love four years ago with Howard Dean (and to a lesser extent Wes Clark) but the magic didn’t carry into the primaries. Kos’ cautious distance, to date, from the candidate wars – concentrating instead on the Congressional contests and on pushing all the candidates into more forceful efforts to stop the Iraq war – embodies a widespread reticence among veterans of Netroots ’04 to “take the plunge” and risk emerging heartbroken again.

Still, an Obama-Clinton death match in the ’08 Democratic primaries would likely prove irresistible for most of the Netroots. Even though they won’t unanimously coalesce around Obama (the Netroots are almost never unanimous about anything), the overwhelming majority may well go into crusade mode, this time behind a better-armed and positioned challenger, one with great potential with other important Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans and what Newsweek correspondent Ana Marie Cox calls “post-boomers” (essentially, everyone under 50). And if the Netroots jump in with both feet, bring out the fundraising bat and start ringing that bell as they did four years ago, the Netroots will become – and be widely seen as – a bigger force than ever before, perhaps the determinative factor in overturning the conventional wisdom in a historic upset.

Al Giordano, currently on leave from Narco News, receives email at narconews@gmail.com.

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