BATON ROUGE, LA. — The lull between one presidential election and the first primaries of the next contest has often been described as the "invisible primary." It is a time when aspirants for commander in chief run various gantlets, from staff building to straw polls, before a single vote is ever cast. Today's presidential hopefuls face another testing ground: political web logs, or blogs.
The initial response from most of us when we hear the words "presidential race" almost exactly three years before election day 2008 is a groan of disbelief. But paying attention now will have its rewards.
First, overwhelmingly, by the time anyone gets to vote in a presidential primary, the political deck is stacked. Candidates, such as George Bush in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004, who have built up the largest war chests and the biggest network of political connections during the invisible primary tend to go on to win their party's nomination.
Second, the Web in general and blogs in particular have perhaps upset a generation-old tradition of political campaigns. Previously, those of us living outside of Iowa or New Hampshire were largely left out of the process. The blogosphere helps dissipate this geopolitical claustrophobia.
The power of the Internet has led the Pew Center's Michael Cornfield and others to say that we should now speak of a much more visible "virtual primary." Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R), Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York all blog or occasionally post on prominent blogs. Senate majority leader Bill Frist just started a blog. Last week House Republicans initiated a "Capitol Hill Blog Row," inviting a number of bloggers to meetings and briefings.
But are blogs really a democratic revolution or are they analogs of well-established campaign benchmarks? Specifically:
• Are blogs the new Iowa? Conventional wisdom holds that the main geopolitical focus of any nomination campaign should be the first caucus state, Iowa, and the first primary state, New Hampshire. Yet, if the blogosphere is a place, then it is the real "first in the nation" testing ground. And yet candidates must work the blogosphere through old- fashioned retail politics: one blog at a time. Like visiting coffee shops and town halls in Nashua, candidates must also have a personal interaction with bloggers.
• Are blog postings new-tech campaign books or speeches? Modern presidential candidates write books with titles like "Changing America" and "Leading America Home" and continue to make stump speeches. The former are little read, even by loyal followers; the latter are mainly delivery vehicles written by speechwriters for the seven-second sound bite. Blogs are a different animal. Political bloggers read entire posts carefully and demand authenticity. Woe to the candidate whose first-person blog is outed as a committee-fashioned script.
• Are blog videos the same as TV ads? Television and its massive budget outlays will always be part of any presidential campaign. But blogs offer advantages over the tube. Blog ads and video logs (or vlogs) are not yet covered by campaign reform rules. Blogs and vlogs can test- market a TV video but also can be deployed as an instant response to opponents' attacks.
• Are blogs virtual campaign rallies? A blog can be a candidate's megaphone, complete with an eager audience. But blowback is possible, too. In the last days of Howard Dean's 2004 run, several bloggers criticized the campaign for being unresponsive to them. When Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, under fire for his Guantánamo comments, consulted bloggers, he found many left-leaning allies in the blogosphere. But when he apologized, several prominent liberal bloggers turned on him.
• Are blogs talk radio? Bloggers indeed can raise issues and events to prominence in a vast global chamber of repetition and reaction. When Sen. Barak Obama (D) of Illinois, recently offered a long post defending Democrats who had voted for the John Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court, it was the talk of liberal cyberspace for weeks. But independent bloggers differ from DJs and radio hosts in one important way: No matter how intemperate they get, they can't be fired or influenced by political pressure, publishers, or advertisers.
Blogs share many qualities of traditional campaign events and activities, but they are different as well. Primarily, independent bloggers are engaged. Bloggers blog because they have something to say and no inclination to take marching orders from political or media elites. The politician who takes them for granted will find himself standing alone.
Finally, the old wisdom that "all politics is local" is wrong in the blogosphere, where all blogs are national. Guest-post on an Iowa politics blog, and that information is instantly accessible to other bloggers throughout the world, including those who want to see you lose.
• David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He is writing a book on political blogs for Oxford University Press. Emily Metzgar is a doctoral student in media and public affairs at LSU.