Jim Webb

Blog Campaigning Thesis - More Extras: Who Really broke the ‘macaca’ story?

(Wikipedia privdes a brief summary of the 'macaca' controversy for those not familiar with the incident. Click this link. The video can be viewed here.)

In my Blog Campaigning thesis I base my conclusion about the role bloggers played in sinking Senator George Allen in the 2006 Virginia Senatorial race on statements spoken by Jessica Vanden Berg, Jim Webb’s campaign manager. You can read what I write about this here

In regards to how the Webb team strategically used the ‘macaca’ video to target media and bloggers, Vander Berg argues, according to e.politics' Colin Delany:  

According to Vanden Berg, they [the Webb team] chose to post the video on YouTube because it was free (simple enough). But before they tossed it out to the public to see, they’d already pitched the story to a Washington Post reporter, who wrote it online on Monday [the video was captured on a Friday]. Only after the Post story appeared and the issue had been properly framed did the Webb folks send an email to their supporter list and to friendly bloggers.  

However, this not the story as Lowell Feld, Webb’s Netroots Coordinator knows it.  

When I recently sent my thesis to Lowell, offering him the opportunity to share his take on how the incident went down, he replied:  

Espen: [...] With regard to the "macaca" incident, I don't fully agree with the assertion that the campaign sold the story to the Washington Post before it told the bloggers.  At least, it wasn't that neat and clean in reality.  If you go back and look at how the story first broke, on the Not Larry Sabato blog, you'll see that it leaked on August 13 (Sunday), a day before the story was published in the Washington Post. You'll also notice that there was a huge frenzy over at Not Larry Sabato. Would the Washington Post have jumped on the story if there had NOT been a blog-induced frenzy already in progress, plus a YouTube video?  I don't know for sure, but my guess is that it would have been less likely and less effective…

Here is the link to the Not Larry Sabato post that broke the story which clearly states that the story was leaked from inside the Webb campaign (See also how the NLS blog first spelled ‘macaca’: Mukakkah! And check out Jeffrey Feldman’s research on the word's meaning – Great stuff!).   

Going over the comments in the NLS post you will really see that the post started a huge frenzy, just as Lowell claims! The post received a storm of comments - 477 to be accurate. The question is: Would the Post have pushed the story without this post starting a huge frenzy? Yes, it probably would. They had the video! But I would still argue that it was a wise choice to leak the story to a blog.

I don’t think Lowell ’s point changes my conclusion in regards to the role bloggers played in sinking Allen. If anything, it supports my claim that bloggers were an important intervening variable in the scenario that turned the campaign on its head - And it definitely supports Henke’s claim: that blogs can establish narratives that the media pick up on. In addition, it really proved that the Webb team did play the ‘macaca’ incident very nicely!    

Note: Lowell Feld blogs for Raising Kaine. He is currently writing a book about the incident – where he promises to tell the entire story! Can’t wait to read it!

- Espen

Blog Campaigning: 6. Conclusion


This study set out to broaden our understanding of the potential influence and role blogs can play in contemporary election campaigns. Questioning whether blogs can have an impact on the political election process, the paper has tried to locate different aspects about the medium that can influence a political campaign or people’s voter decisions more directly. Simultaneously, the paper has worked to locate specific incidents or situations where blogs have helped change the direction of a political campaign or helped swing voters to produce an upset outcome of an election. The data presented in the study reflects only what we can learn form the specific incidents that have been discussed throughout this paper. No generalisations or future predictions can be drawn from the data other than the surveys located as a part of the research.

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, told Agence France-Presse earlier this year that: “The Web will be playing a bigger role than ever in the 2008 campaign, so much so that for the first time, it will actually change the outcome of the election” (in Zablit 2007). Trippi implies that the Internet has gained a stronger position in the political campaign as a growing number of Americans are becoming part of online communities and that moments like ‘Macaca’ are bound to spring up again in the 2008 presidential race (Zablit 2007). As the current study has found, these are relevant claims to make. However, in saying that the web will change the outcome of the election for the first time, Trippi indirectly implies that the Internet to date not has had a profound impact on the outcome of a major election.

Data retrieved by the current study strongly suggests that it has already been demonstrated that a campaign, in some cases, can successfully exploit the presence of the web and community blogs, and in doing so, even impact the outcome of a specific election race. The race between Senator George Allen vs. Jim Webb in the 2006 U.S. senatorial election stands as a great example of this. Data to emerge from the current study shows that Webb’s campaign cleverly utilized the strategic advantages that the Internet and blogs present and effectively managed to create a negative impression of Senator George Allen that drove away enough voter support to cause the incumbent Senator’s defeat. But we can not claim that the Internet or blogs directly caused Allen’s defeat. As the data discussing the ‘Macaca’ incident shows, the Internet can at best serve as an important intervening variable in a campaign’s electoral success. To turn the web into a tool that can optimize a campaign’s electioneering effort, a campaign has to actively involve itself with online communities and develop message management strategies that combine online and offline strategies. The campaign, argues Stockwell, “cannot afford to just put up a website (or a blog for that matter) and hope for the best”. To build strong relationships with constituencies, campaigns have to take advantage of the speed and mass interactivity that the web offers (Stockwell 2005, p. 132). Interestingly, but not unexpectedly, the study confirms what previous studies have concluded: that most campaigns are failing to realize this. While most bloggers are engaging in a vibrant conversation within the overall universe of blogs, the average campaign utilizing a blog for electioneering purposes seems to be operating within a vacuum, using the medium as a traditional one-way, top-down communication channel. Bloggers therefore regard campaigns’ blogs and blogging as a poor effort.

Several recent surveys located by the current study show, however, that voters in general rely more on what they read on the Internet in relation to politicians and elections than ever before (see Gomez Inc. 2007, Performics 2007, Rainie 2007, Burst Media 2007). This clearly indicates that there is a growing potential for politicians to reach voters via blogs, and that the message communicated via blogs might have a stronger effect on voter decisions than so far expected. Bloggers are expecting candidates to reach out to the blog community (Armstrong 2007b). Politicians deciding not to develop a blogger outreach strategy, or not including a blog in their overall campaign strategy, will therefore miss out on a prime opportunity to put a positive and personal spin on the message that a growing number of voters access online.

Previous research has found that: “campaigns that use opinion research to understand the citizenry’s frame of mind and employ the campaign machinery to conduct a two-way discussion with the citizenry that strives for even-handedness and an equality of power can have a remarkable and on-going effect” (Stockwell 2005, p. 17). This might explain why we have such high expectations about the usefulness and effect of blogs in political campaigns. The blog clearly breathes a fresh breath into the political arena, as its nature fosters a process of deliberative democracy, a process that is “acknowledging the power inherent in the citizen’s active engagement in the political process” (Cohen in Stockwell 2005, p. 16). Perhaps many see the blog to be a channel that can guarantee more people free speech and the potential to participate in a process of deliberative democracy that for so many years now has occurred primarily in the mass media giants (Stockwell 2005, p. 17), where participation is limited to the political and financial elite (Stockwell 2005, p. 18). It is therefore important that we continue to explore the effectiveness of the medium, especially compared to traditional mainstream media.

Future studies clearly need to learn more about how many of the people that read, link to or interact with a candidate’s blog, actually go on to vote for that specific candidate. They need to learn more about how voters value the information they retrieve on blogs in comparison to the information they retrieve from other media: Which medium’s information do they find most appealing, which do they find most trustworthy, and which medium’s content has the most effect on their decision at the ballot box. But more importantly, future studies need to learn more about the persuasive elements that make the blog successful. Which elements of the blog make a person want to act or react to vote? Is it the fact that a blog allows readers to participate in a deliberative process? Is it the experience of taking part in something, helping a candidate or a party reach a goal via their blog? Is it the pleasure of freely lashing out against the parties or candidates you do not like, trashing their blogs with spam? Or is it the experience of being positioned on the political spectrum by someone else, other bloggers that share your view or regard you as an opponent? These are the aspects that will not only teach us more about the effectiveness of blogs when used as a campaign tool, they will also help us learn more about how citizens can decentralize the (political) “power that arises from the centralised role of broadcast media in mass society” (Stockwell 2005, pp. 17-18) and create a more deliberative democratic process.