Presidential candidates still don’t actually blog

Politics | Familiarity

One theory of weblogs is that they've settled into a niche of being “unplugged” alternatives to over-produced media. The same words used to describe the popular MTV series could be used to describe blogs: they promised an intimate, direct connection to the audience. That this conception has been endangered in many high-profile political campaign blogs in the United States has not received due attention.

In their earliest use in campaigns, blogs were said to help “humanize” the candidates, updating the tradition of homely campaign artifacts like family cookbooks. Ed Cone, writing “The Marketing of the President 2004” for CIO Insight (12/1/2003), explained the value this way: “The original John Edwards campaign blog was dissed by other bloggers for reading like a series of press releases; his staff read the critiques and re-launched a site with easy-to-use comments; a looser, more-conversational writing style; and frequent personal contributions from the candidate and his wife.” (Edwards and his wife were each the most personable of the major candidates/spouses of that election; Howard Dean, who was very much the face of a campaign which had introduced blogging, never quite used blogging himself, and incidentally his momentum in the polls didn't last through the primaries).

Yet four years later, the series of press releases format seems to be the norm for the presidential candidates. The candidate blogs don't look like press releases, but they essentially serve the same function – favorable press stories, videos of speeches, fundraising updates. It's as if the whole revolution was for naught. The “Five Brothers” blog by Mitt Romney's sons is the epitome of campaign distraction. The candidate himself has mustered just three posts in six months.

(Dennis Kucinich has put his press releases in the Newsroom section of his site. His blog shows the ominous message: “no posts to display.”)

Certainly, the campaign blog is only one part of a web campaign; Dean campaign veteran Zephyr Teachout recently hailed Mike Huckabee for his website's leadership in managing user generated content and coordination with outside blogging. Still, something ought to be said for the ability to master the simple effort of writing a thought a day. Blogging can be an effective literary form. The appeal of leading political bloggers like Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, and Ana Marie Cox is such that they attract readers of all ideologies. Similarly, a candidate has to reach out beyond his base constituency if he wants to win.

The best political speakers – such as Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Clinton, in recent memory – have this skill, and are must-hear. So why aren't any current candidates must-read? And why do the campaign blogs help not at all here?

Here's the problem: Blogging is formless. It may mean a different thing to each person. As long as its reverse-chronological format, and it has the appearance of originality, it will pass muster as a blog. The emergence of video, incidentally, has helped crowd out the classic notion of the riff-on-the-news blog posts.

Jeff Jarvis, the well-known blog promoter, has dedicated his energies in this election cycle have gone towards PrezVid, a blog of video clips from YouTube and the broadcasts networks (that have been copied to YouTube). Are we better off than we were four years ago? In a more innocent time, Jarvis told Mark Glaser in an August 2003 OJR article “I hope to see the candidate react to the news and give me a window into how he or she thinks.”

After all, that's what most people concerned about public affairs do. We wake up in the morning, read the paper, find something of interest and pass it along to our spouse or colleagues, if we're so inclined, we post it to a mailing list or a blog somewhere. And we expect our leaders to demonstrate the same active newspaper engagement (the current President is a well-known exception). Blogging is a strange meta-activity: you don't read the news yourself, you read somebody else reading the news. But it helps you understand that somebody.

Here's an example of what's not being blogged. The front page story in Sunday's New York Times explains how the nation of Malawi has raised itself out of poverty simply by subsidizing fertilizer for its farmers – ignoring the advice of the World Bank. This brings up many crucial issues that are often out of sight and out of mind in national elections: domestic farm subsidies, foreign aid to Africa, industrial fertilizer use. Yet there was not a word from the candidates. Or very many bloggers, for that matter. Certainly they are in “retail campaign” mode all across Iowa and New Hampshire, but should we believe that they've suspended reading the news throughout the campaign.

Here's a better example. Last Friday, the top liberal columnist in the country, Paul Krugman, slammed Obama's healthcare plan for not providing fully “universal” coverage. But any response was absent from the main Obama blog, which instead covered the candidate's event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem the previous evening. Responses could be found in obscure community posts, but only to someone who sought them out. Richard Eskow, a healthcare consultant (who has not commited to any candidate), wrote on his blog a response to Krugman and then an interview with Obama health advisor David Cutler. These he posted to the Huffington Post. But the Huffington Post, with its catch-as-catch-can journalism style, also featured a regurgitation of the Krugman column from Peter Daou, Hillary Clinton's Internet Director. Both of these posts linked to Krugman and thus showed up in the BlogPulse Conversation Tracker for Krugman's article). But if one looks at the BlogRunner list of 118 responses, Daou's post is easy to find at 3rd on the list, while Eskow's post is ranked #32.

The Obama campaign did offer a response – on their “Fact Check” blog. But it's not clear visually how this blog is linked in to the information flow of the campaign or blog websites as a whole. It lalso ooks like a press release. And even worse, it didn't mention Krugman's column at all. It's expected to get banged up by one's opponent, but to lose Paul Krugman's support is even more devastating. One can only imagine the outrage from the candidate at this – because it didn't make it into the blog.

Of course, the differences in the minutiae of the health plans likely has already been forgotten. (Timothy Noah in Slate: “It's a fairly pointless argument to begin with, because they both have pretty good proposals on the table.”) But Krugman remains highly influential, and his Friday column remains unchallenged.

Even if the candidate did write a direct response, it's not clear everyone who read the column would read it. Part of the blame is on the Times here. They've made a large investment in BlogRunner as a tracking tool. But they don't even blog responses or letters to the editor visually to the original column (see LetterVox).

There's also no precedence for respecting right-of-reply. American newspapers have always fought a a legislated right-of-reply as a costly burden; the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional some years ago. But in an age of easy linking, there's no major burden at all. The key shortcoming is that most papers make no particular effort to extend favorable reply placement to people mentioned in an article or column (see PaperTrust)

Part of the blame also is on the inadequacy of RSS/blogging to classify posts according to genre – and of their supporters in failing to solve this problem. Without effective classification, certain categories can easily be skipped.

  • Favorable Press
  • Fundraising
  • Family photos
  • “Fact check” counter attacks
  • The candidate reads the media and offers his direct thoughts

The four “F's” add up to flogs, not blogs. But it's the last category that'sthe  most telling – and the original model of blogging in the first place. If we want a window into  into the into a candidate's thoughts, we'd have better luck turning to a long-form magazine profile.

Undoubtedly candidates for lower offices have done classic blogging, and campaign Internet advisors have begged their bosses to pick up the habit. I'd love to cite such examples, when I get them.

Followup, December 5th: Presidential candidates still don't write poems, either