When I think of the turning point in the 2012 presidential campaign, I think of a YouTube video. And a lot of other political observers do too — but what about everyday voters? When a video of Republican candidate Mitt Romney was released, with him saying a myriad of controversial things, it deeply impacted media’s coverage of the election — but not necessarily how it was received by the American public. The kicker was this phrase: “47 percent.” In his book, professor Daniel Kreiss gave a fascinating look at how campaign staffers manipulated a segment of new media called netroots. Though clearly netroots changed how media covered the candidates, Kreiss doesn’t link the strategy to Barack Obama’s election in 2008. If Kreiss were to update his book to include the 2012 election, the “47 percent” video and other instances would show that netroots’ strategy in 2008 continued into 2012. However, Kreiss doesn’t make the case that netroots impact voter behavior — and nor did the famous example of netroots’ power in 2012.
Netroots are “ a heterogeneous group of activists gathering online who see themselves involved in a common political enterprise to reshape the Democratic Party,” Kreiss said. To understand how netroots were used in 2012, the 47 percent video is a prime example. In September, a video was released by Mother Jones reporter David Corn, who is known for his investigative reporting on high-profile conservatives (most recently, Corn investigated Bill O’Reilly’s war reporting and found many discrepancies). Mother Jones is a liberal magazine that publishes long enterprise stories — but it also has a big following for its daily blogs. Mother Jones, with half a million Twitter followers, is extremely similar to what Kreiss identifies as other liberal netroots: Think Progress, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Kos.
The 2012 video would be one of Mother Jones’ biggest stories yet. The outlet received a video of a Romney campaign dinner from an anonymous source in September, who said that the video could only be published if there were no identifying features online, such as where and when the event occurred. In it, Romney claimed:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.
From the moment the video was accessed to the aftermath of its release, the video followed Kreiss’ account of netroots’ strategy. First of all, the video was obtained by a reporter from an anonymous source — one that wasn’t without agenda. It was Jimmy Carter’s grandson, who was an opposition researcher unhappy with Romney’s attacks on his grandfather. Similarly, Kreiss said many 2008 campaign staffers sent reporters videos that were uploaded from anonymous accounts that couldn’t be traced back to the campaign. From there, the 2008 staffers would hope that big-time journalists like Ben Smith of Politico or Chris Matthews of MSNBC would report on the attack ads. The exact same strategy worked in 2012. After Mother Jones published its story, famous journalists such as Rachel Maddow also picked up the stories, and Obama’s campaign staff released statements condemning Romney. It was a textbook case of netroots helping campaigns get ahead.
Though I personally thought the 47 percent video was a game-winner for Obama, reading up on netroots and the Mother Jones story made me second-guess myself. As a big political media junkie, did I only find the video to be a “gamechanger” because it attracted negative media attention for Romney? A poll by Gallup found that most voters weren’t swayed by the video, even though the video dominated headlines. Voters who said the video made them not want to vote for Romney weren’t going to vote for him anyway, the poll found.
So was it just that the video reshaped the media and the election, not voters’ opinions? If so, then why does the Mother Jones video in 2012 — and netroots in 2008 — matter? Kreiss contends in his account of 2008 that the purpose netroot was to impact legacy outlets and beltway outlets such as Politico, which is meant for D.C. readers. But he doesn’t go into how it affected voters — for example, he doesn’t discuss how the “Vote Different” ad polled. “More work is needed to uncover the goals of netroots actors for their engagement with institutional electoral politics and their power vis-a`-vis campaigns and candidates,” Kreiss concludes.
Kreiss doesn’t theorize that netroots change election outcomes. But campaigns are spending millions of dollars on new media strategy, so I’m assuming winning the election underlies that strategy. Therefore, it would be interesting to research if netroots have any power beyond D.C. insiders. If campaigns want to win elections, not just win popular diary entries on The Daily Kos, researchers should see if the work of ideological blogs matters to everyday voters. Otherwise, the exclusive blogger interviews, the anonymous interviews and the bloggers’ advice doesn’t mean much on the first Tuesday of November.