Matt Drudge, blog-father of the Web publishing movement known as blogging, stuck out his rumor-mongering neck and called the presidential election for George W. Bush ahead of the more restrained old-media pack on election night.
"Bush wins," proclaimed the Drudge Report Web site at 1 a.m. yesterday.
Never mind that 11 hours earlier, Drudge had been among the many Web pundits to publish leaked exit poll data favoring Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry and suggesting the opposite outcome was imminent. "Kerry in striking distance -- with small lead -- in Florida and Ohio," his site declared Tuesday afternoon.
So it went on election night as thousands of Internet publications jumped mouse-first into live punditry, proving themselves to be an increasingly prominent force in the topsy-turvy world of politics. Traffic on Web logs -- blogs for short -- and other political sites skyrocketed on Election Day, creating online audiences rivaling those of traditional media organizations. The Drudge Report pulled nearly 1 million visitors Tuesday -- about 30,000 more than the New York Times on the Web, which drew 944,000 people, according to researchers at ComScore Media Metrix.
Blogspot.com, which hosts thousands of popular Web journals, pulled 330,000 readers while some blogs written live from campaign headquarters by laptop-toting volunteers drew tens of thousands of visitors apiece, ComScore's analysis found. Not all the Web hosts could handle the traffic, rendering many blogs inaccessible for minutes or hours throughout the evening.
Delaware law student and ad salesman Ken Weeks, 28, chronicled the Delaware GOP celebration from a hotel in Christiana using his laptop and the hotel's wireless Internet connection. He took note when the losing gubernatorial candidate arrived in the ballroom. "I'm glued to the TV in the lounge with my computer, a beer and a handful of cheese cubes," he wrote on his Blogolution.com site.
D.C.'s gossipy Wonkette.com was inaccessible at times because it had difficulty handling the traffic, but the glitches did not appear to dampen the spirits of its author, Ana Marie Cox, who posted political quips until 3 a.m. from underneath the skating rink in Manhattan's "Democracy Plaza" (Rockefeller Center) in what she called the "NBC blogger's cafe."
"It was like being denied your lithium prescription," Cox said of her blog-a-thon. She posted exit poll data that "a little birdie told us" and then later backtracked, posting that she had "this weird feeling" about the data.
Cox said she finally returned to her Doubletree Inn hotel room at 5 a.m. and caught four hours of sleep before getting up and blogging again. She was among a handful of Web pundits NBC invited to spend the evening near the network's election war room so anchor Tom Brokaw could interview them about the Internet's widening role in the 2004 election.
Cox said traditional media waxed hot and cold on Web authors, with some commentators seeming impressed that Web logs were among the first to call many races and to give the public a peek at exit polls that traditional media organizations had agreed to keep private. But their attitude seemed to shift, she said, when exit polls in several swing states turned out to be wrong. "All of a sudden blogs were back to being the pajama-clad amateurs," she said, chuckling.
Blaming bloggers for chattering about the exit polls misses the real point of the Web journals, said Weeks, who chose not to post polling data. "It has made the media so transparent," he said in a phone interview. "The Web is the way everybody processes information now. It's given the average person the same type of access to information that you used to have to be a reporter sitting in a newsroom to get."
Describing himself as a libertarian conservative "political junkie," Weeks said he blogged from the GOP celebration until 4:30 a.m. -- "It was just me and a guy passed out in a chair at the end'' -- because he considers elections "the Super Bowl" of politics.
"Delaware doesn't have much in the way of media outlets," he said. "So I think our small community of bloggers provides a real service."
Blogs, of course, were not the only political sites drawing big audiences. The official Bush and Kerry campaign sites drew double their usual traffic Tuesday: 480,000 people went to www.johnkerry.com, and 382,000 stopped by www.georgewbush.com; each drew more than 2 million visitors last month, according to ComScore.
Traditional news outlets, along with partisan groups and pundits, also published computer-generated electoral maps that let people click on particular states and see at a glance how each swing state might affect the outcome. The red-and-blue-coded maps started out with advance polling data, but real vote results reshaped the maps as the night wore on.
Niche blogs with names like ElectionHell.com also popped up to chronicle the polling and precinct problems predicted by observers, but the glitches mostly turned out to be minor.
Also popular were humorous hangouts such as ComedyCentral.com, which published a blog featuring such gimmicks as a mock newspaper with the headline, "Dewey Defeats Bush."
Exit polls, meanwhile, were not the only ones that got traction on the Net.
On its welcome screen, America Online Inc. touted what it billed as "AOL exit poll results" for most of election night. The link led to an online survey inviting AOL members to fill out a form on how they had voted and why. More than half a million people obliged; Bush had claimed 56 percent of AOL's "vote" by 10 p.m. Kerry's big win, meanwhile, came in another unscientific poll taken at GlobalVote2004.org, which was created to let non-Americans have their say on the White House race. Kerry took 77 percent of that pseudo-vote from 191 countries.
The growing audience for blogs was a regular theme throughout the 2004 election, as blogs took credit for fact-checking claims from both candidates and those made in stories published by TV networks and newspapers. The Power Line blog, for instance, was among the first to challenge the authenticity of documents used to support the "60 Minutes" story attacking President Bush's Air National Guard service.
Blogs were entertaining and lively, too, reflecting the range of emotion that gripped the country.
Typical was this Election Day post from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on ThisModernWorld.com: "I woke up this morning at 3 a.m. and thought, 'This is either Christmas morning or the day of a close friend's funeral.' I've been awake since then, and I'm still not sure which."
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.