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Whose Online Base is Bigger, Contd.

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 28 2010

I'm glad to see my friends Mindy Finn and Patrick Ruffini responding to my post yesterday "Tea Party vs Netroots; Rs vs Ds: Whose Online Base is Bigger?" And I don't mind at all that they're disagreeing with my questions and conclusions. That's what the blogosphere is good for: sifting and debating hard questions. And I have a lot of respect for Mindy and Patrick's professional chops, both as Republican online operatives and as real experts in the emerging field of tech-politics.

But the problem is that we're basically arguing past each other. Both Mindy and Patrick are at pains to point out that Republicans are doing better than Democrats online in this cycle; Mindy by highlighting how Rs are embracing social media and reaping rewards in greater follower numbers than Ds, and Patrick by emphasizing several online fundraising successes for candidates ranging from Scott Brown to Sharron Angle to Christine O'Donnell. And I don't dispute any of those points.

As I said in my original post, "The evidence shows that there is more enthusiasm on the right for its congressional candidates than on the left," and " the electoral realm, Republican online activists are more excited in general about their candidates than Democrats." And I concluded, "The Obama Disconnect is also a Democratic Disconnect." I don't think that makes me into someone who is "belittling the online success of the Right" (Patrick) or a "hypocrite" reeking of "sore-loserism" (Mindy!). I thought I made clear that I was impressed by the bottom-up and networked nature of large parts of the online Right, and that I see that as part of the larger shift of political power into the hands of more activated individuals. If something in my post came across differently, that was not my intention.

In my post, I was trying to tease out two different points. First, whether various media reports that the online Right was now bigger than the online Left held up to scrutiny. And second, whether the Tea Party movement nearly as big as the juggernauticaltsunamicplosion we're being told it is.

Re-reading Mindy and Patrick's posts, I think it's clear that we are disagreeing about which metrics matter most in determining the answer to whose online base is bigger. For Patrick, the numbers that matter come with dollar signs attached, and he's right, on that front the netroots aren't generating big money bombs in this cycle the way the rightroots are. This isn't a surprise, since there's obviously much more enthusiasm among core Republican activists about this election than there is among Democrats. Or as Patrick concisely puts it: 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.

For Mindy, the metric to measure is more complicated. "This all depends on what and how you measure, but I suggest an equation that includes, not only blog readership or individual Ning groups, but elected official, issue organization, campaign and grassroots activity."

Well, yes, but my post wasn't about who is doing better overall politically in 2010. No one needs me to help figure out that question. It was about whose online base is bigger (and whether the Tea Party is as big as is being claimed). I'm not only interested in how many people give and how many people vote--I'm also interested in the size of the online activist pool. That's why metrics like blog readership complicate the picture. And that's why I'm going to try to dig in a bit further on this topic in the coming days.

Rather than make this post even longer, I do want to take note of one other thing. Both Mindy and Patrick belittled the part of my post that discussed the Tea Party Patriots network. Mindy said they were just "one of several" Tea Party groups, implying that I cherrypicked the easy target. And Patrick described them as just "one of a host of groups claiming leadership of the largely leaderless Tea Party movement"--though I did notice that he admitted, in passing, that TPP's numbers were indeed "inflated."

Again, I'm sorry, but if you're going to tout the Tea Party movement as the embodiment of a wonderful flowering of grassroots activism on the Right, as both Mindy and Patrick rightfully do, you've got to expect that inquiring minds are going to want to know, well, how big is it? How many people are active in it? And you can't wave your hand and say, well, there are too many groups and none of them really are the hub and therefore it's impossible to say how big. Let's look at the metrics.

All of this isn't just an academic argument, by the way. It's a precursor to understanding the emerging dynamics of the 2012 race too. If the latent base for the online left is a fraction of the size of what it was, that means something different than if it's holding its own. (And the fact that President Obama has doubled his Facebook fanbase in the past year, to more than 13 million, also complicates the picture, to say the least.)

Thankfully, the web offers us a trail of digital crumbs to help tease out all these numbers. More on this topic as well, soon.