How Influential Is The Netroots? or, You Want Links?
by Scott Winship
Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been debating the influence of the netroots on the Democratic Party, mostly inspired by the Lieberman/Lamont race. (For examples, click on any word that’s in this sentence.) At issue are two questions: how influential will the netroots be in elections, and will it help or hurt Democrats at the ballot box? I was going to follow up on yesterday’s post, but I couldn’t resist the urge to examine these questions with some data. Disclaimer: I’m not taking sides here and I claim no expertise on the netroots or the ways in which it exercises influence. Should snark, disdain, profanity, or sacrilege proliferate as a consequence of this post, I claim no responsibility.
I’ve located a few surveys of the netroots that are quite interesting. But the data geek in me began drooling when I learned that the Pew Internet & American Life Project lets anyone with access to statistical software download the raw data. I – like so many other people – spent yesterday evening creating crosstabulations on my laptop as I rode the bus home from my gym.
Moving right along, how influential can we expect the netroots to be? For my part in this debate, I’m going to just look at its size as one indicator. I’ll (mostly) leave it to others to elaborate on how my findings do or do not affect the influence the netroots wields. Using a post-election survey from 2004, I defined “the Democratic netroots” as those adults who “regularly” get “news or information” from “Online columns or blogs such as Talking Points Memo, the Daily Kos, or Instapundit” and who are either self-identified Democrats or liberals. Blogs were one of twelve media sources that were asked about, and each of the twelve was a separate question (so respondents didn’t have to choose between competing sources). Rather than answering that they consulted a source “regularly”, respondents could say that they did so “sometimes” or “hardly at all”. Everybody happy?
What does your gut tell you when you think of the percentage of adults that can claim membership in the Democratic netroots? The answer, according to this survey, is 1 percent. One percent of adults translates into 2.24 million people. At first glance, one percent may sound pathetic. But let’s provide some context. Since one strand of the blogosphere debate has compared the netroots with various special interest groups, it might be instructive to consider how large those groups might be. But first we need to isolate the activist subset of the Democratic netroots so that the comparisons below are apples-to-apples. Take a look:
• Democratic netroots members who either attended a campaign rally, donated money to a campaign, knocked on doors, or worked a phone bank – 1.6 million adults (0.7 percent of adults)
• Union members – 15.7 million
• NOW – 500,000 contributing members
• NARAL Pro-Choice America – 900,000 members of their “Choice Action Network”
• Sierra Club – 750,000 members
• National Resources Defense Council – over 1 million members
• ACLU – over 500,000 members
• Human Rights Campaign – nearly 600,000 members
It’s difficult to make comparisons because these groups do not include all activists in a given issue area. Plus there’s obviously substantial overlap among the groups. But it’s safe to say that there are more Democratic netroots activists than civil liberties or gay rights activists, at least as many as there are feminist activists (and hence probably minority activists), but fewer than there are environmental activists or (especially) union members. Given the influence these groups have had on the Party, it seems reasonable to conclude that the netroots really is a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, these interest groups draw their strength from the popularity of their mission. I would argue that the netroots’ “mission” is to elect candidates who are as uniformly liberal as public opinion in the relevant electorate allows. If I’m right, then mobilizing popular support for an across-the-board liberalism is likely to be significantly more difficult than assembling support for a liberal position on a single issue.
I’ll try to address whether I’m right or not tomorrow. But no big promises that it'll be possible.