Christa Criddle is not the sort of person who springs to mind when political operatives talk about "opinion leaders." She does not have a column, or talk show, or Web site. But if someone wants to influence opinion in her patch of Ohio suburbia, this 35-year-old mother of three is a good place to start.
There are many reasons. Criddle has time, she is just fine with strangers, and she has friends, a bunch of whom gathered in her living room the other night for a party to support President Bush's reelection. Most of all, Criddle has strong views -- lots of them.
"What will our country be like if John Kerry wins?" she implored her guests to imagine. "That scares me to death. . . . Liberalism today is modern socialism."
Criddle is one example of whom Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman calls an "influential." That name comes from a book about marketing, "The Influentials," one of Mehlman's favorite texts to explain the challenge of political communication in a world crowded by the proliferation of cable networks, talk shows and Web sites. The thesis of authors Ed Keller and Jon Berry is that it is a small percentage of the population that -- by virtue of being more attentive, more vocal and more immersed in the rushing currents of modern life -- drives popular tastes.
Influentials help explain why one TV show becomes a hit while another flops. And, Mehlman believes, they will be indispensable filters and promoters of the attitudes and arguments that will frame the choices voters make this fall.
The Bush campaign has decided to put those influentials to work, adopting a strategy that might be called echo politics. It sends out talking points and lists radio talk shows for each metropolitan area as well as suggested issues and tips for getting on the air.
Its Web site provides links for supporters to e-mail local newspapers directly. The campaign has hoarded about 6 million e-mail addresses, including some purchased from lists, and has 420,000 volunteers -- 28,000 in Ohio alone -- who in addition to fulfilling traditional tasks such as voter registration and turnout are creating an echo of the Bush campaign message from the neighborhood up.
The Kerry campaign has made a nod to this type of politics. The Democrat encourages supporters to plan "meet-ups" of like-minded activists, borrowing from a phenomenon that helped drive former Vermont governor Howard Dean to prominence last year. But Kerry's campaign, by visible evidence, does not have as well-developed a strategy for exploiting the new political marketplace, in which people get news and argument from many more sources than they did even four years ago. A Kerry aide contended that the campaign's e-mail list of 690,000 may be just as valuable as Bush's since it does not include purchased addresses, and that the campaign's Web site will be updated to include some features of the Bush site, such as a letter-to-the-editor function.
A better example of echo politics on the left is the work of MoveOn.org, an online political group that claims about 1.7 million activists with whom it stays in touch by e-mail. The group has been spending heavily in the traditional manner, buying anti-Bush TV ads in Ohio and other swing states. But it also has begun a more innovative program to monitor the news media for stories that volunteers believe tilt unfairly to conservatives, and some members in Ohio are planning a campaign to promote more liberal callers to talk radio shows.
The strategies of MoveOn and the Bush campaign are responses to the new complexity of political communication. In an earlier age, two and three decades ago, shaping public opinion was a more mechanical exercise. Operatives bought many television ads on a small number of stations and, if the ads were decent, they could be reasonably confident that opinion would move as they anticipated.
In the 1990s, the ascent of talk radio and cable networks reshaped public moods -- indifferent one moment, prone to sudden attack the next, forever prowling for new subjects. Newt Gingrich, O.J. Simpson and Monica S. Lewinsky all had their moment in the cycle. Since then, each new election cycle multiplies the number of outlets in a limitless spectrum of media -- from traditional newspapers at one end to obscure Web logs at the other -- and makes the task of shaping opinion more daunting. So do new technological devices, such as TiVo, which allows television viewers to skip commercials.
"You have a world where a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention," said Mehlman, in a phrase he has made a constant refrain. "It's almost a cacophony of information. The way people get through it is by turning to people they trust."
Strategist Matthew Dowd, his colleague, has a more colloquial way of putting it. Remember "Waterworld," Kevin Costner's box-office bomb? "You can spend $100 million making that movie and $50 million advertising it, but people are not going to go if their neighbor says they saw it and it stinks." An opposite example, he said, is "The Blair Witch Project," a movie hit that shot from obscurity because of word-of-mouth endorsements.
The political world has its equivalents of "You've got to see it" and "It stinks." Which words best describe Kerry: war hero or waffler? Does Bush have a plan for winning Iraq? Or maybe this whole thing is really Vice President Cheney's way of enriching Halliburton. A senior operative with Bush's Ohio campaign said he heard that one from his neighbor -- the kind of conspiracy theory that gets scant acknowledgment from traditional news organizations but can thrive in the echo culture.
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."