Loose Lips in the Blogosphere Don't Sink Presidential Ships


Feb. 15, 2007 — -- The Dean scream has faded into memory, but the volatile and youthful voice of the Web has now matured into a forceful bellow in the 2008 presidential race.

Almost every major presidential candidate -- from left to right of the political spectrum -- has embraced the blogosphere.

YouTube. Myspace. Facebook. Instant Messaging. Political blogs. Presidential campaigns are redefining their political toolboxes to reach every potential voter.

"This is a medium that has formed and evolved since the last presidential election," said blogger Patrick Hynes, 34, a paid Internet consultant to John McCain, R-Ariz. "More people are engaged in this online dialogue and more activist tools are available at their fingertips. It's great for organizing."

But when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong, as in the nascent campaign of John Edwards, D-N.C.

Just days after signing on to be Edwards' blogmaster, Amanda Marcotte, a 29-year-old left-of-center blogger, resigned over anti-Catholic comments she had previously made on the blog Pandagon.

Then a second acerbic Edwards campaign blogger, Melissa McEwan, also became a lightning rod for conservative critics, and she, too, quit over her reportedly anti-Catholic messages.

"We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked," Edwards said, after the 350,000-strong Catholic League threatened to unleash a public relations effort against his campaign.

From the other side of the aisle, Hynes understands the ramifications of this new political age. He was criticized, and later apologized, for not telling readers on his blog, anklebitingpundits.com, that he was consulting for the early McCain political action committee.

Still, Hynes believes the best political advice is to learn to live in harmony with the vocal blogosphere. "Politicians have to accept that this is an era where strictly controlling their message is ending," he said. "There are too many activist voices in the new media -- and too many perspectives that are now being given a voice -- for a campaign to run its message through central command."

But, cautions Hynes, both media and politicians should not hold candidates responsible for statements and postings made "outside the context of the campaign," as was the case with Marcotte, who commented on the Duke University lacrosse case.

"In my perspective, the bloggers play by a different set of rules," said Hynes. "There is a different window, no deadlines and few responsibilities for balance.

"You are reporting, but we [as bloggers] are having a conversation."

Peter Daou, Internet director for Hillary Clinton's, D-N.Y., campaign, sees blogs as a positive development in presidential politics.

"It's a great way for people to communicate and to get information and to come together," said Daou, 41, and a former blogger for dauureport.salon.net. "It's a great new addition for people with passion to have more of an interface with the candidates.

"I don't look for a downside. The blogosphere has added an entire new mechanism to politics," Daou explained. "It cannot be a bad thing for the political process for people to express themselves and share views in a public place. Sometimes people agree and sometimes they disagree, and that is what is so wonderful."

Old campaign tools, like petitions and letters, have found a new home on high traffic blogs, where a robust dialogue exists of the events of the day or latest accomplishments. Blogs also serve as filters to channel the reader's attention on a particular issue or candidate.

So, too, online communities mark the crossroads of the old and new political worlds.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., who defines himself as the voice of the next generation, created his own page on the college networking site Facebook.com, as did Clinton. There's a lot of "buzz" on the site as each of Obama's supporters hope to be his one millionth online "friend."

Despite the political minefields, American politicians will have to get used to the treacherous blogosphere, said David D. Perlmutter, author of "Blogwars: The New Political Battleground."

"The campaigns have to adapt to people who are coming from nontraditional backgrounds and haven't gone through the traditional vetting process for who gets to be a spokesperson for the campaign," said Perlmutter.

Savvy political managers will need to routinely sift through bloggers' pasts in the same way previous generations dug up candidates' indiscretions.

"Now, we have to assign someone to read all their blog posts to see if they are one of us," said Perlmutter. "In the old days, we would hire a speechwriter and could get their clip portfolio and see if it raised problems."

Even with the odd loose cannon, blogs serve the political process well, Perlmutter suggests. "This is a tremendous opportunity to recruit articulate spokespeople who are connected to the electorate. We just need to figure out how to incorporate the political ticking time bombs into the campaign without offending people."

More important, he said, the blogosphere is just another symptom of the generational divide -- not the political one.

"I am in my 40s and diaries are kept secret, not put on the Web for 500 of my closest friends to comment on," said Perlmutter. "But young people in their 20s are coming up through the system as campaign workers, and they have grown up in a new media environment. They think that e-mail is old media."

Tuesday night, Perlmutter moderated a panel discussion on blogging at the University of Kansas Dole Institute of Politics that was simulcast to a nearby high school. One teacher expressed consternation that her high school students spent the entire time text messaging and not paying attention.

"It seems inconceivable to me, but what they were doing was communicating with their friends on how great the panel was," Perlmutter said. "Eventually, they will be the voters in the system."

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