John Edwards needs a netroots reboot

From the moment John Edwards launched his 2008 campaign by posting a video of his announcement speech on YouTube, he seemed poised to win the title of most Internet-savvy presidential candidate. His slick-looking website, his wife Elizabeth’s regular posts to the top-rated political blog DailyKos, and his hiring of high-profile veterans of Howard Dean’s 2004 Internet-fueled run all signaled Edwards would be making a strong play for netroots support.

In the campaign’s early days, the media breathlessly covered the campaign’s online know-how and swallowed the hype that Edwards 2008 would be Dean version 2.0 —bigger, smarter, and better at using the Internet to harvest money, volunteers and votes.

Things haven’t quite turned out that way for Edwards. True, he posted decent online fundraising numbers by raising approximately $3.3 million via Internet donations in the first quarter of 2007, out of an overall haul of $14 million. But in the second quarter, Edwards’s figures dropped, as his $9 million total came up $5 million short of what he was able to raise from January through March.

His rival Obama, by contrast, raised $32.8 million in the second quarter, nearly four times as much as Dean’s second-quarter 2003 total. About a third of Obama’s cash, $10.3 million, was from online donations, compared with $3.5 million for Edwards. And he beat Edwards in the fundraising race by more than 3-to-1, including more money raised online than Edwards collected from all sources.

Edwards also has lagged behind in his total number of contributors. In the first quarter, Edwards reported contributions from 40,000 individual donors, versus Obama’s 104,000 and 50,000 for Clinton. In the second quarter, Edwards gained an additional 60,000 donors, but Obama added more than 154,000, for a year-to-date total of 258,000 who have made 358,000 individual contributions.

It’s not for lack of trying to recreate Dean’s magic that Edwards is coming up short in the fundraising department. Edwards has signed up several veteran Dean staffers, including Matthew Gross, who ran the Dean campaign’s blog, and Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi.  In a July 1 profile, The New York Times’s Adam Nagourney reported Elizabeth Edwards had advocated hiring Trippi “in large part to address her concern about lackluster fund-raising by the campaign.”

Another of Edwards’s major Internet hires was Ben Brandzel, formerly advocacy director for MoveOn.org, and an organizer for Dean. Brandzel’s arrival was followed by a stir when the campaign’s online team asked anti-war Edwards supporters to stage protests at Memorial Day events.

The idea drew fire from veterans groups and newspaper editorials. Elizabeth Edwards wisely amended this plan by asking supporters not to protest on the Monday holiday, only the weekend before, because “Memorial Day itself is not supposed to be a day of protest. It’s a day of honor.” Lesson? What works in an advocacy group’s e-mailed action alerts, directed at a narrow group of activists, doesn’t always translate into effective ways to promote a presidential campaign.

Several of Edwards’s other initiatives as an e-candidate haven’t lived up to their hype. He got a lot of press for his early presence on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, more than two dozen in all. A few months into the campaign, many of the same pages had negligible traffic, and some hadn’t been updated since their creation.

Obama currently has nine times as many Facebook supporters as Edwards, and three times as many MySpace friends.
Most of the major presidential candidates have rolled out their own social networking tools, from McCainSpace to Edwards’s OneCorps, but Obama’s is outperforming the rest. My.BarackObama.com has 5,500 netroots groups formed and more than 10,000 events held offline so far.

Edwards got buzz mileage out of being the first candidate to use Twitter, a site that lets you post short, two-sentence snippets about what you’re doing at any given moment. But, as skeptics of the service have noted, who really cares? Aren’t the same people who want to follow what John Edwards is doing every hour on the hour already rabid enough about his campaign not to need any more hand-holding?

It may be that Team Edwards, despite their Dean campaign experience, aren’t doing anything groundbreaking with their Internet strategy. It’s possible that the self-inflicted wounds Edwards has suffered over supposed issues like haircuts and hedge funds have dented enthusiasm for his candidacy online, just as they’ve dragged down his standing in national polls.
Or it could just be that Edwards is not the freshest face in the race.  In 2008, it’s Obama who’s the newcomer, and the
candidate most likely to inspire passionate involvement on the part of folks who have never worked on or donated to political campaigns before, whether online or off.

Ironically, only days after announcing the hire of yet another Dean campaign veteran, Joe Trippi protege Paul Blank, Edwards told reporters they should look to Dean’s implosion as a reason not to count him out of the race. “Remember Governor Dean who out-raised everyone else by more than 2-to-1 and wasn’t able to win the nomination,” Edwards said in an AP interview. In order to avoid Dean’s fate, Edwards had better hope his campaign learns a lot more lessons fast about how to compete in the YouTube era.


Ose is a veteran of Democratic campaigns and online organizing in North Carolina. His columns have appeared in newspapers there and on Salon.com. He authors The Latest Outrage, a Chapel Hill-based political blog.