Sifry is someone I consider a friend and genuine believer in the cause of digital democracy whatever our political differences, but he's wrong here. It was PDF, and their TechPresident blog (to which I've contributed) that obsessed over the online gap between Democrats and Republicans in 2008, even popularizing hour-by-hour charts of Facebook fans and Twitter followers to document the extent of Obama's lead over every Republican candidate. At the time, there wasn't much to argue with in these numbers. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, and Republicans have a opened up a lead in voter enthusiasm (which I would argue is inextricably tied to online activism) in 2010, Sifry tries to deny its significance by shifting the debate back to old-style political blog readership or creating straw men by citing inflated membership figures by one of a host of groups claiming leadership of the largely leaderless Tea Party movement.
As someone who deals directly in Republican political activism and often watches confirmation emails flood my inbox as online money for candidate clients pours in, I don't there's any arguing that the right has at least reached parity with the left and outmatched it in important ways. And as someone who was doing this long before 2010, I can say this very definitely wasn't the case a few years ago.
The Scott Brown phenomenon is not thought of as an exclusively online phenomenon, but the means by which it happened was largely online: $12 million -- more than 90% of the funds raised by the campaign -- coming in online in 18 days.
Show me a Democratic Senate candidate in any race who raised that amount in that short of a time. Not Ned Lamont. Not Jim Webb. Not Bill Halter. Though there was a lot to be said for the digital smarts on that campaign, everyone knows that when something like this happens, it's almost purely a function of the collective strength of a party's grassroots rather than anything about the candidate or the campaign. When conservatives resolved themselves to beat Bart Stupak in the 24 hours after his health care vote, his Republican challenger Dr. Dan Benishek didn't even have a website, so they flooded his PayPal account.
Had opportunities like these presented themselves in 2005 and 2006, I'm not sure that conservatives could have capitalized in the same way. Online fundraising surges on behalf of Republican candidates back then were unheard of, aside from the occasional $10K fundraising drive on RedState or some other blog. Meanwhile, progressive blog triumphalism was its peak. The netroots was raising serious money into highly symbolic special elections, starting with $80K for Ben Chandler in Kentucky back in 2003 and an eye-popping $500K for Paul Hackett in the OH-2 special in 2005. There was a legitimate infrastructure gap that should have had Republicans worried. And in the end, the tsunami finally crashed ashore in 2008.
In 2010, Republicans have no reason to worry that their base won't be there for them online. Both Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell raised more than $1 million online in the 24 hours after their primary wins. Scott Brown was all of this on steroids. Republicans in every competitive special election have had no problem raising hundreds of thousands of dollars online apiece. And in perhaps the closest thing we have to a head-to-head match up, Joe Wilson caught up and outraised his Democratic challenger in the wake of a massive online mobilization after his "You lie" comment a year ago.
Meanwhile, the netroots oomph just isn't there anymore. They're not winning primaries at the same rate as the Tea Party. The race they were most invested in, Halter vs. Lincoln, turned into a donnybrook for the movement, like Lieberman vs. Lamont before it. I had to check if there was still a successor to the "netroots candidates" on ActBlue anymore, and there is. It's called Orange to Blue and it's raised $376,000 for a handful of candidates, a far cry from the $2.4 million raised in 2008 and the more than $1.5 million raised by the Netroots Candidates list in 2006. The lack of many discernible Democratic opportunities this year has also meant that they just don't seem to be trying as hard. Most every post I read on the home page of Daily Kos in 2006 had the ubiquitous orange "Donate" and "Volunteer" buttons. No more.
The lesson: online enthusiasm can't be separated from offline momentum. There is nothing intrinsic about the left or the right that makes one side or the other better online. The left won online in 2008 because it was winning offline. The right is winning online in 2010 because it's winning offline.
The facts don't fit the narrative that the netroots has carefully cultivated about why it succeeded early on. This sentiment is best expressed by Andrew Rasiej, Sifry's partner at TechPresident, who said at the height of the left's online momentum in 2007:
“In a thumbnail way, Republicans have spent the last 30 years building a massive top-down communications infrastructure,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of techPresident, a group blog that follows how technology is being utilized in the 2008 race. “The culture of the Internet is completely foreign to them,” he added. “The Internet is all about bottom-up.”
Of course, this caricature of conservatives as mindless rubes who do as they're told has been shown up by the massive revolt against the Republican establishment that's had real world electoral consequences in virtually every major primary this year. I think we can consign this particular left-wing conceit to the dustbin of history.
Perhaps, the left will do better when they have something to believe in again. But for right now, I think you have to hand this round to the Republicans.