The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Obama Bypassed the A-List Rather Than Co-Opting It

I love me some Anglachel, in many respects.  In her review of Eric Boehlert’s book Bloggers on the Bus, she notes that it’s missing some important precursors of the blogosphere, such as the Daily Howler and Media Whores.  But she also goes on and on about how the Netroots was run by the Obama campaign and became part of the media circle, whose job it was to elect Obama.  Since Anglachel was and is a complete Clinton partisan, her objection isn’t to partisanship, it is to partisanship for Obama despite the fact that Clinton was better on a number of domestic issues (such as healthcare).

I was managing editor of the Agonist during the primaries, and managing editor of FDL after the primaries and during the campaign proper.  Here’s the deal: with a couple of exceptions (such as Americablog), the A-list was not primarily for Obama in the primaries.  As much as it was for anyone, its preference was John Edwards, though for various reasons it never fully got on board his campaign (something which displeased me at the time, and spare me the “he was cheating” amateur quarterbacking, since no one I knew believed it during the primary).

What Obama did wasn’t to manage the A-listers, he cut past the A-listers with direct outreach to their readers and captured their base from them.  The Netroots didn’t turn pro-Obama from the top down, it turned pro-Obama from the bottom up.  I saw this both at the Agonist and FDL.  I saw it other places.  Clinton was never that popular online, and when it became clear that Edwards wasn’t going to win, the majority of readers turned to Obama.

The A-listers did not lead on this.  As with the old joke about political leadership, they saw where the crowd was running, and they ran to the front of the pack and pretended to lead.  There were exceptions, such as MyDD, where Jerome Armstrong remained pro-Clinton.  And there were honorable cases of this.  Jane Hamsher at FDL was very clear, for example, that FDL would support whoever the Democratic nominee was.  If it had been Clinton or Edwards or Kucinich, I can guarantee FDL would have supported that person.  Hard.  I think the same is true of most other A-listers though there’s no question that some made threats of not supporting Clinton.  The majority of such articles however, however, were written not by A-listers themselves, but diarists.

In Democratic party politics you have power if you can either deliver an identifiable block of voters, or if you can deliver money. Barack Obama bypassed the blogs on both counts, getting the voters and the money without needing the Netroots.  If the Lieberman primary was a bow shot across the establishment by the Netroots, the presidential election of 2008 was a demonstration of the limits of Netroots power and of the fact that with enough money and smart operatives the A-listers were gatekeepers who could be bypassed.

That doesn’t mean that Anglachel isn’t partially correct that the A-list has been partially co-opted.  Parts of it have, without question.  But to think that the A-list has become part of the Village is incorrect.  The Village doesn’t need the A-list, and knows it.  Barack Obama proved it.


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  1. Audrey Yoeckel

    Hey, Ian. You are so right. Can’t tell you how many times I saw “I was for Edwards but my kids want me to vote for Obama. They love him.” Definitely bottom up. I had all sorts of problems with Obama. Still do. But we’ll see if he’s playing some grand strategy to battle the giants or just playing politics. Miss seeing your stuff at FDL, BTW.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Thanks Audrey. I miss the readers at FDL, who were a great bunch, but I definitely needed a break. This little place is perfect right now: I write when I feel like it, but feel no obligation to write when the urge isn’t strong.

  3. Bolo

    Here’s much quieter than at FDL–plus, you have an RSS feed of your own, which I don’t think was possible at FDL. Makes my reading much easier!

  4. “What Obama did wasn’t to manage the a-listers, he cut past the a-listers with direct outreach to their readers and captured their base from them. The netroots didn’t turn pro-Obama from the top down, it turned pro-Obama from the bottom up. “

    Hence the frustration still to this day that Obama is not listening to the Netroots and distancing himself from them at every opportunity.

  5. Ian Welsh

    He didn’t and doesn’t need us, and he knows that in 2012 the netroots will support him anyway, because the Republican will be worse. I suggested a number of time that people largely ignore the presidential race and work on downticket races, for this very reason. Vote for Obama, but don’t donate to him or volunteer – do that for better downticket candidates. It didn’t usually go over very well.

  6. I’m way down on the blogger hierarchy but, like many a-listers, wasn’t for Clinton and went to Edwards for purely tactical reasons:

    1) Previous VP nominee.
    2) From the south (partly because of a sense that the Great Realignment hadn’t completed – though in retrospect it looks as if it has).
    3) Not black or a woman (although with Clinton it was really the Bill factor and the dynasty angle). That’s harsh, but there was a feeling out there that after Bush, with critical Supreme Court vacancies definitely in play, and the beginnings of a severe post-bubble recession, this was no time to take chances. I was convinced that the ballot box would show a -4% difference from the polls due to hidden anti-black bias. And there was definite uncertainty about how Obama’s thin resume would affect his candidacy.

    Let’s not forget that the Reverend Wright business looked like a fatal blow. It turned out not to be, but many were wondering if there was some other hidden surprise out there.

    What I thought then, now appears to be completely wrong. As Anonymous Liberal notes, many Democrats were fixated on finding the right “formula” candidate (southern, governor, etc.) and no doubt were influenced by history. Starting with Truman (!) and excepting JFK, all Democratic presidents were from the south (Johnson – he counts because even though he was elevated in ’63 he won on his own in ’64, Carter, Clinton). I didn’t like the notion of the south having so much influence, but accepted it grudgingly because it seemed like something we’d all have to live with, not unlike the disproportionate power of the small states in the Senate or the Electoral College.

    As it turns out Edwards was a bad candidate, although he was critical to getting Clinton in 3rd place in Iowa – a major blow to her prospects. And he would have been a disaster if the revelations of his affair came out, especially with Elizabeth sick. Could Edwards have won against McCain if all was known? Not impossible, but surely, a challenge.

  7. Ian Welsh

    I wasn’t pro Edwards because of such calculations, I was pro-Edwards because of his policy positions. While I thought there would be a Bradley effect, and that Obama was the weakest of the three candidates in a general, I also thought (and said) that any Democrat could and probably would win, as it was an overwhelmingly Democratic year. If Obama had been the most liberal candidate (as opposed to the one with the social markers minus the reality) I would have backed him first.

    McCain wasn’t doing too badly till the economy went to hell, and he bungled his response. People seem to forget that.

  8. scott

    I don’t disagree with your post that there was a significant bottom-to-the-top increase in support for Obama. I view your point and Anglachel’s as complementary, both-and. Yes, there was a significant bottom-up effect, but you did have a lot of A-list bloggers (Kos leading the pack) who went all-in for Obama on a personal level and joined a very ugly slime-fest during the primaries. I thought her post was to point out that this slime-fest actually occurred (remember all the hyperventilating in May 08 about how HRC was rooting for Obama’s assassination? Jesus!) and that it should be remembered, not papered over. That’s all.

  9. senecal

    The “pajama-hadeen” became the “Obama hadeen”.

  10. More like a “Z” lister I, and never a “supporter”, per se, of either Clinton, I actually stopped visiting, and haven’t returned, many “lefty” sites I had long relied on in my daily scrolls as I just couldn’t handle rabid anti-whomever. To be perfectly honest, the only candidate I could honestly support, if he weren’t such a religious loon…

    One of my earliest memories of this particular medium was the flame war I created in ’02 when suggesting at (on sabbatical) I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some form of Clinton/Clarke combination in ’04. Not supportive, just suggesting. Hence when I left academia and started my own publication I have never endorsed a candidate for anything beyond state treasurer.

    Probably why I’m a “Z” lister…

  11. Jerome Armstrong

    I was a timid Edwards supporter, and lukewarm Clinton supporter, but mostly a vocal objection to what you aptly call those “saw where the crowd was running, and they ran to the front of the pack and pretended to lead.” Especially the cult-like “he speaks for me personally” pack which made me about puke.

    What I think you miss though, and Boehlert misses it too, is that the reason why Obama was able to bypass the netroots, was between ’05 and ’07, the mainstream media had become ‘bloggers’ just as much 24/7 breaking the news as netroots was, even moreso.

    If Robert Gibbs can just go to Ben Smith of Politico or Chris Cillizza of the WaPost, and the bloggers will follow their lead (which the did), why should he bother with the so-called A-list bloggers? The timing of this coming about, with a communication team that knew how to exploit it, was pretty strategically soundly executed by the Obama campaign.

  12. Ian Welsh

    Good point, and true enough. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it’s certainly the case. It’s better to break news, but it was visible that netroots big blogs would follow the story of the day. In my opinion sometimes that really worked, and sometimes it didn’t, in terms of traffic, but whether it did or didn’t, it meant giving up the ability to set the topic of discussion. And no question, with the exception of their two week panic when McCain surged ahead, the Obama campaign bypassed us consistently throughout the campaign. Why not when too many of us would echo chamber their talking points anyway?

  13. jo6pac

    Yes, we are stuck with this WH but I say without Howard Deans players in the field that helped the O mob he wouldn’t be there now. Those few did the field work. It’s really important as you said, it’s really about the little races to save US. It’s all about live local.
    Thanks Ian

  14. catlady

    It was astroturf. I’ve heard many times about how Axelrod paid people to post comments on blogs. It has nothing to do with genuine bottom-up grassroots support.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Heard that a number of times, not sure if it’s true, though there’s some reason to believe it was. Nonetheless I’m quite sure it wasn’t all astroturf. I know some of the biggest Obama boosters in my comments at the time, and I would be very surprised if they were being paid.

  16. adrena

    It may have been a bit of both

  17. Quiddity:
    Don’t forget that some people(me included) weren’t fans of Clinton because of the DLC(and Bill being the best Republican President since Eisenhower) stuff. Yeah, Edwards was a one time DLC’er but with his positions in the ’08 campaign he basically turned his back on Al From and Co.

  18. Ed

    I went to campaign events for both Dean and Obama, and there seemed to be much more, for lack of a better term, electricity at the Dean events. There was also more genuine excitement on the blogs.

    Dean came from Vermont, which is still partly run by town meetings. Obama came from Chicago. There is a big difference. But I suspect that Obama got most of Dean’s old support over the Iraq War stance alone. I also suspect that he was basically the best that we could do choosing among the machine pols, though it may turn out not to be enough.

  19. The majority of such articles however, however, were written not by A-listers themselves, but diarists.

    So I’m not sure that A-listers shouldn’t get some credit for creating the internet ecology that allowed the Obama campaign to do this.

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