Building A Rightroots Movement


Over at Heading Right, Jon Henke is talking about building a Rightroots movement,

Does the Rightosphere not organize as well because of the nature of the online Republicans? Or do the online Republicans not organize as well because of problems with the Republican Party? I think it’s mostly the latter – something that can be fixed – but it will not be changed until a number of other changes happen within the Right and the Republican Party.

Since I got into the blogging game, I’ve consulted for the Duncan Hunter campaign, I led the Rightroots group in the 2006 cycle that raised almost 300k, I’m leading a blogger fundraising group this time around that’s trying (and mostly failing) to raise significant amounts of money for GOP candidates, I organized a successful 2006 Googlebomb against Democratic congressional candidates, I’ve worked to get bloggers hired as columnists at some of the bigger mainstream conservative websites, and I probably know and stay in contact with more conservative bloggers than anyone else on the face of the earth.

So, let me take a few moments to give you a real, no-holds-barred assessment of where the Rightosphere is, where it could go, and what needs to happen to help it reach its potential.

Left Vs. Right

First off, there was a time when the right side of the blogosphere was significantly stronger and more effective than the left side of the blogosphere. When I started doing political blogging back in 2001, that was certainly the case.

However, over time the left side of the blogosphere grew much faster than the righties and eventually, they branched off into fundraising, where they’ve had much more success than the right ever has.

Why has the left side of the blogosphere grown so much faster?

Personally, I think there are two reasons for it. The first is that the Right has a large talk radio presence while the Left doesn’t. That means on the left, strongly motivated partisans have little choice other than to flock to the blogosphere while on the right, they can simply opt to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham to get their daily fill of conservatism.

The other more salient reason for the Left’s growth is simply that they’ve been out of power and that has produced an anger and an energy that has driven them online. There was similar growth on the right during the nineties when websites like Townhall and Free Republic rose to prominence as a response to the Clinton years. If Obama gets into the White House, it will be terrible for America, but my guess is that the right side of the blogosphere will grow like a weed for the next 2-4 years.

The Republican Party And The Blogosphere

The Republican Party has improved a lot in dealing with bloggers. They have meetings to let us know what’s going on, different Republican noteworthies have semi-regular teleconferences with bloggers, and we get swamped with press releases from Republican candidates and political groups. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Republican Party looks at bloggers solely as an alternative means to get their message out. In other words, there’s a completely non-functional top down organizational structure. It’s non-functional because the Republican Party organizations and pols issue talking points and press releases, most of which are of no interest to bloggers, and they are largely ignored. In other words, they spend most of their time issuing unheeded orders to people who, by and large, think they’re incompetent and aren’t inclined to pay much attention to what they say.

There are exceptions: Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Thaddeus McCotter and a few others — but most of the Republican Party doesn’t really understand the blogosphere or know how to communicate with bloggers.

That’s a real shame because had they listened to bloggers, most of the big political snafus of the last four years could have been avoided. However, they pay zero attention to things they’re told by bloggers, even on the rare occasions when they ask what we think.

Just to give you an example of what I’m talking about, here’s a generic conversation, some variation of which I’ve had with different congressional aides at least half-a-dozen times over the last four years.

Anonymous Aide: Hawkins, I want to ask your advice.
John Hawkins: Shoot.
Anonymous Aide: We’re thinking about doing idea x.
John Hawkins: Are you out of your mind? That’s going to be a disaster!
Anonymous Aide: Well, they’ve already decided to do it. How do we sell it to the bloggers?
John Hawkins: You’re asking me whether you should put mayonnaise or mustard on a sh*t sandwich. I can give you some advice, but it’s not going to go over well no matter how you spin it.

Inevitably, it doesn’t sell — which cuts to the heart of the problem the GOP has with bloggers: they need to have conversations with bloggers instead of just viewing us as another part of the message machine. The Democrats do exactly that and I’d submit to you that’s part of the reason they’re beating the GOP’s brains in — they never get blindsided by the reaction of their own biggest supporters.

What the GOP needs to realize is that bloggers, some of the better ones anyway, tend to have their fingers on the pulse of conservatism. They typically live outside the Beltway and they get to read a wide variety of conservative opinion each day around the blogosphere and in their own comment sections. We’re talking about people who can predict exactly what is going to be written and said about a particular proposal by other conservatives. The Republican Party should pick up the phone and call Erick Erickson, Ace, or Michelle Malkin and ask them what the conservative reaction is going to be BEFORE the GOP makes yet another blunder instead of trying to do damage control afterwards. It would make a lot more sense.

FundRaising

The left side of the blogosphere made a name for themselves via fundraising and many people have asked why the Right hasn’t been able to do the same thing.

Well, I’ve found that conservatives are willing to pony up the money, but it’s extremely difficult to get people in the new media to ask their readers/listeners for money. Why that is, I don’t know, but I find that as a general rule, if bloggers and talk radio hosts on the Right have a choice between seeing their favorite candidates lose and asking their readers to donate money, they’d rather see those candidates lose.

I’m unsure whether that’s a cultural thing that will change over time or just some characteristic of conservatives, but it makes it extremely difficult to organize any sort of fundraising effort. As a general rule, it’s like pulling teeth to get the bloggers who explicitly agree to help to actually ask their readers for money and most of the rest of them bend over backwards not to link a fundraising effort.

Of course, the same problem exists in talk radio — and that’s highly ironic. Why? Because if the talk radio hosts had helped out on the fundraising front over the last couple of election cycles, they’d have been able to raise enough money to save several GOP senators. In other words, if the GOP can’t put together enough senators to filibuster the Fairness Doctrine, it will be because talk radio hosts decided that they’d rather see Republican senators go down in flames than ask their listeners to chip in a few bucks to help them.

Online Enthusiasm

One of the biggest problems online — and this extends outside of the blogosphere — is that there are far more liberals online than conservatives and they’re much more enthusiastic.

Because of that, huge websites that can drive a lot of traffic like Digg, Fark, and YouTube have come to be dominated by liberals, even though they aren’t liberal per se.

Now, is this a function of the lack of enthusiasm on the right or just a difference in the way that conservatives and liberals use the internet? It could be a little bit of both, but I couldn’t help but note that the Paulians, who weren’t necessarily hard core conservatives, were able to make an enormous impact on the web. They produced high hit counts on YouTube, got on the front page of Digg, and swamped online polls. If they could do that despite their relatively small numbers, mainstream conservatives are capable to doing it as well if they get fired up.

Helping Hands

There’s a perception in some quarters that bloggers get a lot of support from the conservative establishment, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As a rule, talk radio hosts and the big conservative mags treat bloggers like lepers and that’s coming from a guy who has actually written a regular column for Human Events and Townhall.

Seriously, I have talked to big name conservatives at influential publications who tell me how much they love blogs, but then those same people refuse to link the same blogs that they read on a daily basis for reasons that mystify me. It’s like they came up with a policy of ignoring those blog “thingamajigies” back in 2000 and they haven’t updated it yet.

That being said, there are a few bloggers who have managed to cross over, but generally, that has a lot more to do with knowing the right people in the right places than talent — which is rather bizarre if you think about it. I mean, if you can start from scratch and build up an audience of 5k, 10k, 15k people a day who read you, surely you can deliver the goods as well as most of the writers for conservative mags — and the talk radio guys? For the most part, they read blogs, use the stories we come up with on the air, but never mention us.

There are exceptions. The Washington Examiner, Hugh Hewitt, and my buddy Jaz McKay all look out for bloggers — but, they’re very rare and a lot more needs to be done.

Like what?

Well, let me give you one example: hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent during this election season to help Republican candidates get elected and most of it won’t make one iota of difference.

On the other hand, you could have one conservative donor with deep pockets who could hand out, let’s say, twenty $25,000 grants, for two years in a row, and they could double the size the blogosphere.

How?

Well, there are a number of bloggers who could go full time if they could add $25,000 a year to the money they’re making off of advertising. There are other bloggers who could use that money to advertise their blogs. Some other people could use the money to recruit talent and do reporting. Given that the traffic in the blogosphere tends to be heavily concentrated in the top blogs, of which there are a relatively small number, you could see the size of those blogs dramatically increase with these grants.

So, what would you rather have: 500k worth of ads running in states John McCain will probably lose anyway when it’s all said or done, or say another 200k-300k people reading conservative blogs all year round? Which would do more for the conservative movement? Which would ultimately be of greater value?

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