WASHINGTON-They came bearing more signs than tea.
"Taxed Enough Already"
"Give me liberty' not debt"
"Fed up and Tea'd off"
But at last month's nationwide Tax Day Tea Party protests many came, they said, because Facebook, Twitter and blogs alerted them. Could an emerging conservative internet army give Obama's own online army a run for its grassroots money?
Web-based social networking has fully mainstreamed itself into politics and grassroots organizing with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and an assortment of blogs changing politics perhaps as much as talk radio did in the 1980s. But the peer-to-peer aspect of new media promises to be much more powerful-giving voices and organizing ability to radio's once passive listeners.
"If you are not allowing people to interact, then you are not playing by 21st-century rules," said Chris Moody, new media manager for the Cato Institute.
Barack Obama's presidential campaign mobilized social networking technologies with a collected 13 million email addresses. And the Obama administration is tapping into that network post-election to win legislative fights. In the weeks leading up to the congressional debate over Obama's $3.5 trillion budget, David Plouffe, Obama's former campaign manager, sent a message to all 13 million: Push the president's budget over the top by using the "same thing we asked of you during the campaign-talking directly to people in your communities."
The call to action, initiated through Organizing for America, a new incarnation of the Obama-built campaign apparatus now housed at the Democratic National Committee, ultimately led to 10,000 volunteers canvassing neighborhoods and the eventual delivery of 214,000 signatures to Congress (half of them via the internet) in the days leading up to the budget vote.
Those numbers underwhelmed experts. Thomas Mann with the Brookings Institution told The Washington Post it was a "pretty lame start." Others noted that the pledges gathered online totaled less than 1 percent of the entire email list.
At worst for Obama's followers, the turnout signaled post-election fatigue. At best it showed a reluctance by those supporters to get involved in the arcane process surrounding legislation, particularly on controversial issues like energy, health care, and education. "The email list is not proving to be as effective in the policy debate as it was in the campaign debate," acknowledged Faiz Shakir, editor of the left-leaning blog Think Progress. "It is hard to galvanize people around complex policy issues."
Instead, the budget debate proved to be a coming-out party for a post-election conservative grassroots movement, with its $3.5 trillion price tag lighting a fire that ignited-thanks to Twitter, blogs, emails, and televised promotions-into the nationwide tea parties. "It is a lot easier to get involved and fight when you think the government is imposing its will on you," said Dan Kotman of American Solutions.
Twitter, with just 140 characters to answer the question "What are you doing?" is becoming a key arena for conservatives to connect and organize. A list of popular "Twitterers" in Congress (tweetcongress.org) shows that seven of the 10 most followed congressional Twitter accounts belong to Republicans (Sen. John McCain is No. 1 with nearly half a million followers)-while seven of the 10 most active Twitter accounts (i.e., with the most "tweets") also are from Republican lawmakers.
Rory Cooper, the director of strategic communications at The Heritage Foundation, said it is not too much of a stretch to call the Tax Day Tea Parties the first Twitter-induced political rally in U.S. history. Among the thousands who showed, many said they were attending a protest event for the first time.
At the Washington tea party across the street from the White House, the lack of top-down organization was striking: Homemade signs and T-shirts replaced the corporate-sponsored uniformity found at most rallies. Average taxpayers took the stage far more than big-name speakers. "Regular people doing regular things can lead to spectacular results," said Eric Cary, 43, of Gaithersburg, Md., an out-of-work computer engineer who vented on stage.
Indeed, Twitter and its companions have the potential to transform political grassroots activism as we know it: Cooper said it is unheard of in the pre-Twitter era to have more than half a million people show up at 900 cities across the nation to protest the economic policies of a president who has been in office for only 90 days.
Conservatives and liberals agree that Democrats have jumped way out in front when it comes to using these new technologies. Opposition to Bush's polices unified the left and liberals flocked online to organize their frustration. By the end of his presidential campaign, the Barack Obama's main networking tool, my.barackobama.com, had more than 2 million profiles and 35,000 groups.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Upset with the notion of big government spending, conservatives are catching up. But observers agree that the one thing conservatives are missing is the name recognition of an Obama-like figure. Conservative strategists want to unite supporters around issues, like energy prices and government spending, rather than an individual. Democrats are pushing the image of controversial conservatives like talk radio host Rush Limbaugh as the conservative brand.
In the end, building grassroots support is likely to boil down to message, not technology. Still, both sides now understand the advantage of being the first to dominate a social network. Last year 2,000 liberals descended on Texas to attend an online convention while 600 conservatives participated in their own new media workshop, where groups learned and swapped best practices for wielding the new media tools. This year both conferences will be held in Pittsburgh in August.
And further down the political calendar, Cooper predicts that some presidential candidate in 2012 will announce his bid for the White House through Twitter. Kudos to anyone who can outline presidential aspirations in 140 characters.