Jerome Armstrong was one of the architects of Howard Dean's Internet campaign. He's best known for starting the first grassroots Howard Dean website and for introducing Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, to Meetup.com. At the peak of its influence, the website drew 190,000 volunteers to monthly campaign meetings.
But Armstrong doesn't look like a political power broker. At the October 6 Vermont gubernatorial debate at the Clarion Inn in South Burlington, he looked pretty much like a regular guy. In a sea of suits and khaki, the Internet consultant was wearing jeans, New Balance sneakers and a fall jacket. Except for the slim, silvery computer on his lap, he could have been a soccer dad headed to a game.
The boyish 40-year-old Burlington resident was the only person at the debate with a laptop. Since none of Vermont's major newspapers covered the forum, he was also probably the only person in the room who typed up a report of the event and published it -- in his case, by posting his observations on his website, where they were seen, over the course of the next 24 hours, by roughly 30,000 people.
Jerome Armstrong is what's known as a blogger; his website MyDD.com -- the DD stands for Due Diligence -- is a variety of online journal commonly referred to as a web log, or blog. Armstrong broadcasts his thoughts over the Internet. But lately he's also been spending a lot of time talking to traditional reporters; earlier this month he was featured in the cover story of The New York Times Magazine.
Sites like Armstrong's are making headlines because they're the new national watercoolers. Rather than merely consuming what the media reports, a growing number of civics-savvy Americans -- from political junkies to presidential candidates -- are joining the discussion or checking it out for themselves. It's a national, online conversation, and everyone with access to an Internet connection is invited to speak up, or at least listen in. It's where the action is: That's why television commentators, in their post-presidential debate coverage, now quote from blogs.
The millions Howard Dean's campaign raised online, one small contributor at a time, were impressive -- a tangible measure of the internet's political potential. But Deaniacs didn't invent the blogosphere; the candidate's techy advisors merely harnessed its growing power.
Now Armstrong -- eager to prove that despite Dean's defeat, blogs can help the Democrats take back Congress -- is no longer waiting for the campaigns to figure it out for themselves. Like a laptop vigilante, he's started taking matters into his own hands. Which is pretty much the whole idea behind blogging.
Armstrong started MyDD in June 2001, then took a year-long blogging break in May 2003 to work for Dean. He relaunched his site last March. Since then, his cyber smarts and political punch have attracted an online readership larger than some of Vermont's local papers.
MyDD is not affiliated with any news organization or campaign -- it's just a place where Armstrong and his blogger buddy, Pennsylvanian Chris Bowers, can post their wonkish blend of news and election analysis designed to appeal to Democrats like themselves. They get enough traffic to be attractive to progressive advertisers such as the website the twofacesofbush.com, which bring in between $1000 and $2000 a month. Armstrong makes most of his money showing candidates and organizations how to use the net; he recently launched a blog for Common Cause.
As the November elections approach, MyDD's pointedly partisan perspective is becoming increasingly popular. Last week alone, the site attracted 173,000 visitors. That's almost as many as it got in the months of March, April, May, and June combined. And though MyDD is big and getting bigger, other blogs -- such as the conservative Instapundit and Little Green Footballs, and liberal sites Talking Points Memo, Escha-ton, and Daily Kos -- are huge and getting huger.
Although Republican bloggers might actually command a bigger online audience share, it's the Democratic bloggers who are driving the use of blogs as a political organizing tool. Daily Kos is probably the best example. It's run by Armstrong's consulting partner, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga; the two founded Armstrong Zuniga in January 2003. Moulitsas cites MyDD as his blogging inspiration, and calls Armstrong his "blogfather." Two weeks ago, Daily Kos -- the name refers to Moulitsas' Army moniker -- was averaging 330,000 daily visits. Now it's up to half a million.
Moulitsas has translated his traffic into political clout by promoting news, analysis -- and candidates -- of interest to his partisan readers. So far, Daily Kos has raised $100,000 for the Democratic Party, and another $83,000 for John Kerry.
Last May, Moulitsas held an Internet primary to let his readers decide who he should endorse. They compiled "the Kos dozen," similar to "The Dean Dozens" Howard Dean has supported through his organization Democracy for America.
The Kos Dozen includes House and Senate candidates from all over the country, including New Yorker Samara Barend, Brad Carson of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania's Ginny Schrader. Daily Kos and other liberal blogs actually helped Schrader become a viable candidate. She was an unknown long shot before her moderate Republican Congressman opponent dropped out of the race in July. Stephen Yellin, a 16-year-old blogger who sometimes posts to Daily Kos, alerted the blog to the opportunity to win the race, and suggested that everyone pitch in ASAP.
"This is completely out of left field, folks, and it gives us another opportunity for a pickup," Yellin wrote. "Ginny Schrader is the luckiest candidate in the nation today, but can her luck hold?" In June, Schrader reported she had only $7000 in the bank. Two days after the liberal blogosphere started rallying around her, she'd pulled in $30,000.
And while Daily Kos has raised the most for its candidates, there are thousands of other blogs bringing in a little here, a little there. It adds up. For example, Daily Kos reader Todd Pritsky, a technical instructor for Verizon who lives in Fletcher, links to Democratic fundraising sites on his blog, Dohiyi Mir. Pritsky himself has raised $1500 for John Kerry, and $1000 for the DNC. "Pretty good for someone who's just a schmuck in Vermont," he notes.
The point of blogs isn't really money, though. The sites attract guests because their hosts know how to throw a good party: Lure the right people and get them to talk amongst themselves. Most blogs let readers weigh in on what's posted, and respond to things other readers have said.
But visitors aren't just "talking," they're writing. And when you write online, you can embed links to the subjects you're writing about. If you were reading this story on a blog, the words Daily Kos, say, could take you directly to that website and let you see it for yourself. It's so easy to do you'd probably check it out. And after reading this article, you could post a comment about it on Daily Kos and provide a link to the Seven Days site so everyone else at Daily Kos could see this article, too.
This kind of interaction, multiplied exponentially, drives news on the blogosphere. Stories and ideas travel because thousands of people comment on thousands of blog posts, and provide an instant pathway to evidence that illustrates their point.
MyDD and Daily Kos take this interaction one step further, allowing their readers to post their own uncensored "diaries" to the site. Links to the diaries appear along the right-hand margin of the page. To see them, you click on tantalizing headlines such as "Subverting the Texas Paradigm" and "Why Did Bush Skip His Physical?"
Users can customize how they view the blog, and can choose how many diaries to display on the page. Older diaries get bumped down as new ones appear. Diaries on MyDD might stay up for as long as 24 hours, but on Kos so many people post that the typical shelf life of a diary is 30 minutes.
To keep important information from getting lost in the queue, Kos readers can "recommend" diaries they believe deserve a wider audience. The diaries with the most votes stick around for an additional 24 hours.
The recommended diary spot on Kos is a powerful media outlet in its own right. Last month, when an Alabama woman was fired from her job for refusing to remove the Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on her car, her local newspaper wrote an article about it. That might have been the end of the story, but a Daily Kos user posted a diary linking to the newspaper article, and within a matter of hours, the story had spread across the blogosphere. The next day John Kerry himself called the woman and offered her a job on his campaign. The whole saga played out in its entirety in the Kos diaries. Moulitsas didn't even participate.
This scenario excites Brian Young, a Plattsburgh resident and former producer at Vermont Public Television. Young has been reading MyDD since Armstrong first began supporting Howard Dean in the spring of 2002. Young recently quit his job at VPT after 10 years to start a company that researches ways to put public television on the web. At a time when six media conglomerates control 90 percent of the media content in the world, blogs provide a grassroots, democratic alternative to corporate media, Young believes. "When we look back in a couple years at blogs, that's going to be the part that's made the most difference," he says of blog comments. "The real point of blogs is that it's community media."
The folks in your local community may already be plugged in. Former Waterbury Village President Thomas Stevens checks out Daily Kos and MyDD to get his "daily fix" of political news. Stevens compares his visits to Armstrong's electoral college forecast map to "looking at the weather charts in the Times Argus."
Jessica Workman, who owns Speeder and Earl's coffee roastery on Pine Street, has been a Daily Kos "lurker" -- which means she reads but rarely posts -- for two years. "I think it's going to change the entire way the political structure in this country works," she says, "and I think that it's exciting. I think other people do, too, which is why this is happening."
A tech-savvy ex-Dean volunteer in Burlington, willing to be known only by his blog handle, Vermonter, says he's known about online communities for years but never felt compelled to participate before the Dean campaign. Now he reads, and posts, on several liberal blogs a day. "There is something very real about virtual communities that I was previously very cynical about," he says. "I think it's inevitable that this becomes popular."
Blogs' best days are yet to come. Though an October 7 Harris poll showed that 88 percent of Americans had looked on-line for news in the past seven days, the vast majority of them went to traditional news media sites like CNN.com. Only 3 percent of respondents reported visiting the right-wing Drudge Report, the country's most popular blog. Daily Kos didn't even make the rankings.
But Armstrong isn't waiting for the majority of Americans to catch up. He's moving on to the next frontier -- using blogs to advocate, not just to organize. He and Moulitsas have just put $2500 each into a political action committee called BlogPAC. Their mission statement, posted on Blogpac.org, challenges bloggers to do more than just blog. "Being educated is the first step toward political change. But the next step requires doing something," they write.
Toward that end, they've invited their readers to send them video and audio clips of candidates. Armstrong and Moulitsas then use these clips to create multimedia Internet ads and pay for them to run on sites like CNN.com and Yahoo, which reach folks who would never visit a blog. It's possible to "geotarget" them to reach only the voters in the right district, Armstrong explains. Another bonus: "You have a better chance of reaching somebody on the Internet on the afternoon of the workday, Monday through Friday, than you do on television."
Sitting at the computer in the living room of his Burlington apartment, Armstrong pulls up the template for his first ad, which is now running on CNN.com. The video was submitted by MyDD reader TexasNate, who posted it as a diary on September 13. It's a 30-second clip from a debate between two Texas candidates, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions and Democratic Congressman Martin Frost. Because of redistricting, their two seats are now one, and they're both fighting for it.
In the video, Sessions compares 9/11 to a "home game," and Iraq to an "away game." Frost responds decisively. "Pete," he says, "my wife is an Army officer, and she's on assignment in Iraq right now...Pete, this is not a game." In Armstrong's ad, the video plays in a small square surrounded by a grey-green graphic including an image of a tank and the words, "Tell Pete Sessions the Iraq War Is Not a Game."
Armstrong is clearly proud of his work. "It's really damning on Sessions," he points out. "I think it's very effective. It's a very good bio for Frost...His wife's in Iraq. That's not something you go around bragging about." Frost's campaign is less pleased about the ad, however. They didn't respond to requests for an interview for this article, but Armstrong reveals that he and Moulitsas received a "cease and desist" email.
Armstrong says he figured that would happen. "It's kind of like the two-step game. Candidates disavow it, but that doesn't have anything to do with how a voter reacts to it. They'll do it in such a way where they're condemning it, but they're not condemning it -- you know, how Bush did with the Swift Boat ads." BlogPAC plans to continue running the ad until November 2.
And more ads are on the way, Armstrong says. They've got one attacking Republican senatorial candidate Tom Coburn, which is running in Tulsa on Yahoo.com. A rabble-rousing clip of Tim Ryan, a Democratic Congressman from Ohio, bashing Bush on the floor of the House circulated through the blogosphere last week. Arm-strong plans to turn the clip into an ad this week. He's working on getting Howard Dean to do the voice-over. The next step is raising money. And the bloggers are coming through with it. After only a few pitches on Kos and MyDD, BlogPAC has already got over $12,000 in the bank.
Some people are disturbed by one aspect of blogging: Increasingly, it blurs the lines between reporting the news and advocating for candidates. Noted technology columnist Dan Gillmor is not one of them. In an email interview, he asks rhetorically, "Is it good for democracy for partisanship to be so explicit? Better, I'd say, than if it's hidden." The author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People says he finds BlogPAC fascinating. And coincidentally, he lived in Vermont from 1969 until 1984. Gillmor notes, "Making blogs more than a bunch of disassociated voices strikes me as a logical next step in this evolution."
The next logical step probably won't happen in this election cycle, however. Blogger Duncan Black -- a.k.a. Atrios, author of Eschaton -- sees the 2004 elections as a testing ground. Blogs' true might, he suggests, won't be felt until the next round of campaigns. Last week, he joined forces with Armstrong and Moulitsas, and began promoting BlogPAC on Eschaton. "The general idea, of course," Black writes half-jokingly in an October 7 post, "is controlling the board for the '06 midterms and making people weep before the all-powerful force that is the blogosphere."