One thousand left-leaning bloggers from across the country and activists who read them will converge Thursday on a Las Vegas hotel. Between cocktails and turns at the slots, they’ll match faces to the screen names they know from their home computers and plot ways to toss the Republicans out of power.
It might be tempting to write off the first-ever YearlyKos convention, whose name pays homage to the popular political Web log Daily Kos, as kind of a Star Trek-Greenpeace-anti-war-fest.
But if you’re a Democrat trying to win back the Congress this year or seek the presidency in 2008, these may turn out to be 1,000 of the most important people you’ll brainstorm with, impress, or at least placate. For many Democratic leaders, that’s too big a potential jackpot to ignore.
Presidential hopefuls such as Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are scheduled to deliver speeches or participate on panels at the convention, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the Riviera Hotel and Casino.
So are Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson of CIA leak scandal fame was expected. So were many journalists from the mainstream media, or what bloggers often derisively call the MSM.
With the past couple of years, courting bloggers in towns across the country has become as much a part of the ritual for some politicians as attending union rallies or Chamber of Commerce dinners.
“When I go anyplace now, I’ll usually call some of the key bloggers,” said Warner, who also is hosting a party for bloggers at this week’s convention. “I’m trying to shift the debate from ‘left vs. right’ to ‘future vs. past.'”
A high-tech investor before his career as a politician, Warner said, “The jury’s still out on how big an effect the blogger community will have, but I’m betting it’s going to have a bigger effect than most predict right now, in terms of the new, unfiltered way people communicate in politics.”
Gina Cooper is betting so, too. The-36-year-old former schoolteacher from Tennessee, who recently moved to Northern California, is a leading force behind the convention. She said like-minded activists began talking about putting something like this together after President Bush’s re-election in 2004.
They sought permission from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga to use the “Kos” name because it was such a popular Internet gathering point among progressives. Daily Kos gets about 500,000 visitors a day, according to its own statistics. Moulitsas will attend the convention, and many other blogs also will be represented.
Online search engine Technorati says it tracks about 43 million sites worldwide and estimates 75,000 new blogs a day are created.
Experts are still trying to figure out how much blogging and the Internet as a whole matters to local and national elections: Can bloggers significantly affect turnout or shape issues, or are they mostly echo chambers with little measurable sway? Will those trends change as more Americans turn to the Internet to get news, nurture their personal relationships and make commercial transactions?
The Pew Internet & American Life Project has been looking at such connections since its inception in 2000, but associate research director John Horrigan said it is still very much an emerging field.
In November 2004, 5 percent of Internet users said they got their campaign news from blogs. About 75 million Americans said they had used the Internet for politics, be it reading a news story, e-mailing with friends about politics, visiting a campaign Web site or blog, or donating money online to a campaign.
In surveys last year, 27 percent of Americans said they read blogs of some kind and 9 percent of Internet users said they got news from blogs.
“If you’re talking about 9 percent of Internet users getting news from blogs, that’s 13 million people,” Horrigan said. “That’s going to be an audience of people who are obviously very engaged and interested in politics. They could be influential people within their circles of friends. And that can help shape the nature of people’s conversations.”
Until now, Republicans “have been much more effective than Democrats, generally, at integrating blogging and other Internet tools within campaigns,” said John Palfrey, the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The Blogs for Bush network did more to elect George W. Bush than anything Democrats did. Even the Democrats will say Republicans were much better at using these things functionally.”
Within the Democratic Party, however, some strategists question the wisdom of aligning too closely with bloggers. Among the concerns is the idea that bloggers may disproportionately represent liberal, activist wings of the party, and that Democrats should instead be appealing to moderates.
Cooper said that fear is unfounded. Of those involved in YearlyKos, she said, “I think they represent the pragmatic wing of progressivism. I wouldn’t characterize it as necessarily liberal at all.”
Among Democrats not planning to attend the convention this week is Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who, as a potential presidential contender, has positioned herself as a centrist war supporter and fought longtime characterizations by Republicans that she is liberal. Asked why Clinton was not scheduled to attend the YearlyKos, her spokesman said only that she had other commitments this week in New York and Washington.
Blogging, Warner said, “may just be the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the impact the Internet has on campaigns in 2008 and beyond.
“How significant is podcasting going to be? Text messaging and video messaging to cell phones?” he said. “As people look at new ways to slice and dice demographics, the personalized way somebody can talk to you as an individual voter about the issues you care about?”