In Ohio, Building a Political Echo
The influentials come in different stripes. One may be the retiree who stays on hold for an hour to get on a local call-in show. Another may be the guy who sends out half a dozen e-mails a day to friends or even vague acquaintances, with such titles as "outrageous" or "fyi . . . check this out," and filled with links to news stories and Web sites.
Billie Fiore, a paralegal and Bush volunteer in Licking County, east of Columbus, says she has to discipline herself not to overload the nearly 500 names on her e-mail address book with too many talking points and news links. Of her list, she boasts, "Basically, we are our own media."
Or an influential may be a more conventional sort such as Criddle, a cheerful and articulate woman who dropped her Junior League commitment to devote all her volunteer hours to Bush. She says she keeps Fox News "going pretty much 24-7" because she believes it is best for political news free of liberal bias. She runs her errands sporting her "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Democrat" T-shirt. She writes letters to the editor and spends her weekends recruiting Bush volunteers, pressing always for new e-mail addresses to add to the campaign's list. And she is ready to talk politics at any time, including in the school parking lot while picking up her children.
That the Bush campaign is more methodical in adapting marketing concepts such as influentials to politics does not surprise Michael Harrison. He is the editor of Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio. "The Republicans have always been more organized and more visionary in taking advantage of new media," Harrison said. What is striking about this year's politics is the way in which e-mail and Web sites have entered the mainstream at both ends of the ideological spectrum, and help promote the buzz that any new product, whether car or candidate, needs to be successful. "Every housewife has an e-mail," he said. "We're not talking about geeks and technoheads."
One person Harrison is talking about is J.B. Lawton of Dublin, Ohio, a MoveOn activist.
Late last month, Lawton started his day as he ordinarily does, by bouncing around his favorite liberal Web sites. He learned something that left him seething. This was the day news broke that Sinclair Broadcast Group would not broadcast a special edition of "Nightline," in which Ted Koppel read the names of U.S. service personnel who have died in Iraq, on its ABC television affiliates. The ABC station in Columbus, WSYX, is owned by Sinclair.
Lawton's idea was to organize a rally outside the station, with protesters carrying American flags and reading the names themselves into a bullhorn. Lawton announced the idea on his Web log, which is posted on a liberal Web site known as dailykos.com, and began calling and e-mailing other liberal activists in Columbus, some of whom he knew. "I don't think that they'll change their minds, but at least they'll have some egg on their face," he urged another activist.
The idea worked. Several television stations, including WSYX, covered Lawton's protest, which also was mentioned in the Columbus Dispatch and on CNN.
Lawton does not fit the popular stereotype of an angry liberal, using the Web to rage against the machine. His hair is not long, or spiked, or colored with a pastel streak. He is 39, and nearly all of his hair has fallen victim to male-pattern baldness. He does not live in a group house. To the contrary, he types his fulminations in the basement rec room of a large house in one of Columbus's most affluent suburbs, which has nice cars and minivans in nearly every driveway.
His wife is a lawyer, and Lawton, who has a Ph.D in theater, is for the time being a stay-at-home father. This has given him time to nurture a fascination with politics that took root out of admiration for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and transformed into zealous activism because of his grievances over the Supreme Court's intervention in the close 2000 presidential election, and over the Iraq war.
He is mild in manner but intense in his views. And what is notable about them is that many of his grievances are aimed at the same target many conservatives abhor: establishment newspapers and networks. "The so-called liberal media," he said. "The New York Times? They're the ones who hounded Clinton during Whitewater."
MoveOn has started a national Media Corps, with 35,000 volunteers who monitor major newspapers and broadcasts and complain when they see bias. There is also a "Fox Watch" project, devoting special attention to the Fox News network. Noah T. Winer, who runs Media Corps from his Brooklyn apartment, acknowledges the irony that liberals now generate as much bile as conservatives over the media. "I think for a lot of reasons over the past decade, people have really started to notice that corporate ownership affects the medium" of major news outlets, he said. He cited in particular what he regarded as insufficiently tough-minded scrutiny of Bush's assertions about weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war.
In Ohio, Lawton tries to take action, rather than simply stewing. He reads papers from around the state, and on his Web log -- he had five responses to one posting, "so at least I know someone's reading it" -- suggests letters to the editor people can write, either critiquing coverage or suggesting other points about the election. He offers tips for potential correspondents, including this one: "Defy stereotypes. Liberals get (mis)characterized as effete, godless intellectuals who are out of touch with mainstream values. When appropriate, try some rhetorical jujitsu by citing unexpected sources. For example, the Bible -- and religion in general, for that matter -- is a valuable resource that the Left underutilizes."
"It would be great if every single day in every Ohio paper there was a letter that was either pro-Kerry or anti-Bush," he said. Of his blogging and protests, Lawton said, "I feel empowered -- instead of just shouting at my television set, I can actually do something about it."
Grievance Is Strong Force
Lawton is a reminder that grievance is perhaps the most potent force in echo politics -- a phenomenon that is equally true on both sides.
The Republicans gathered in Christa Criddle's living room were an illustration. These people have every reason to be happy. In Ohio, the GOP has won every statewide office for the past dozen years. In Washington, conservatives control all three branches of government for the first time ever.
Yet, while there was ample positive sentiment expressed for Bush and what this group believed was his decency and strength, the conversation became visibly more animated when people were talking about subjects they do not like.
Kerry, for instance. Linda Zins-Adams, who teaches German, regards the presumed Democratic nominee as a rudderless phony who is running only because "he's bored and wants something to do -- he has to have a reason for his $1,000 haircuts." Various speakers denounced the alleged Democratic view that terrorists should be prosecuted rather than have war waged against them. They also carped about the United Nations, welfare, Hillary Rodham Clinton and abortion-rights supporters. One man, visibly emotional, said liberals have rejected God and declared, "Hitler was a liberal."
Criddle, who got her start in politics through the abortion-opposition movement and remains passionately committed to it, said she was taken aback when a visitor suggested that her group seemed angry, and spoke as if conservatives were a beleaguered minority rather than the people running the government.
Her approach to politics is to support positive choices, she said, but acknowledged that she is frustrated by how she perceives Democrats and how some media "blame everything" on Bush. Earlier, she had urged her group not to stand for it. "If you see something in the paper that gets your goat," she advised, "write in and tell them not everyone feels that way."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Activist J.B. Lawton of Dublin, Ohio, reads a statement during a protest he organized outside the WSYX television station in Columbus. He announced the idea on his Web log, which is posted on a liberal Web site, and began calling and e-mailing other liberal activists in the area.
(Will Shilling For The Washington Post)
About the Series|
This occasional series on the presidential election in Ohio, which both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have identified as a critical swing state, examines the evolving strategies and techniques for motivating supporters and persuading uncommitted voters in an age of deep partisan divides.
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