When the two leading Republican presidential candidates started to squirm last week about attending a Sept. 17 YouTube debate, in which the public would ask them questions via video, they faced a surprising backlash from their ideological allies in the blogosphere.
The candidates’ failure to embrace the new format, which the Democrats participated in last week, has prompted a public soul-searching by some of the party’s most loyal supporters.
The candidates, they say, reinforced a notion already bedeviling their side: that Republicans don’t “get” the Web. While the Republicans have mastered talk radio, the Democrats have led in using the Web for fund-raising, organizing and energizing the grass roots.
“The YouTube debate snub is the symptom, not the disease,” said Patrick Ruffini, a prominent Republican blogger and the e-campaign director for the Republican National Committee from 2005 until earlier this year.
The “disease,” Mr. Ruffini said in an interview, is the Republicans’ failure to convey that “the online community matters to them,” even if they have active Web sites and are using them to raise money. He has helped start an online petition to urge the candidates to participate in the YouTube debate.
The two candidates, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are now trying to patch up the mess. Both said last week that the Sept. 17 date interfered with their fund-raising schedules, and Mr. Romney said the video format was demeaning.
Yesterday, an aide to Mr. Giuliani said the campaign was working with CNN, which is to broadcast the debate, to find a mutually agreeable date; an aide to Mr. Romney said they were waiting for CNN to propose a new date and would then consider participating.
Although Mr. Romney in particular took issue with the format, his campaign does make extensive use of its Web site and has put slightly more money into online activities — $1.4 million in the first half of this year, according to an analysis by The Hotline, part of nationaljournal.com — than Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spent the most of any Democrat.
Still, the damage may have been done in reinforcing a stereotype of Republicans as stuck in a time warp, writing off younger voters and afraid to face an unpredictable public that has a negative opinion of the current Republican White House and the war in Iraq.
Andrew Sullivan, a conservative blogger writing on theatlantic.com, put it this way: “The current old white men running for the G.O.P. already seem from some other planet. Ducking YouTube after the Dems did so well will look like a party uncomfortable with the culture and uncomfortable with democracy.”
Others have argued that the candidates should not participate, in part because they do not trust CNN to be fair.
“If the G.O.P. candidates agree to this format, expect a series of cheap shots about all of the top-tier candidates,” Hugh Hewitt, a conservative blogger, wrote on townhall.com. Democrats, on the other hand, embraced their inner YouTube last week, although they have so far avoided a debate on Fox News, perceiving it as hostile to Democrats.
Still, the Democrats have made broad use of social-networking sites and video and have used the Internet to activate the grass roots and raise money. In the first half of this year, the top three Democrats raised twice as much online as the top three Republicans. And they have committed more staff members to their Web departments: 39 on the 8 Democratic campaigns, compared with 18 for the 9 Republicans, according to Mr. Ruffini’s analysis of the Hotline data.
“Republicans are largely outsourcing their Web operations to highly capable technical firms but don’t have the boots on the ground to drive content, marketing ideas and ensure that the effort stays relentlessly in synch with the campaign’s message,” Mr. Ruffini wrote on his site, patrickruffini.com.
This weekend, the Democrats are taking another Internet-related leap forward: Senators Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, among others, are meeting with liberal bloggers in Chicago at YearlyKos, the convention arm of the liberal DailyKos Web site. Clearly, the Democrats have had an organizing principle in the anger at President Bush and the war. Sites like DailyKos have used the inexpensive, viral nature of the Web to fan those flames and serve as a hub for activists.
“The left has been out of power; the right has been in power,” said Jon Henke, brand manager with New Media Strategies, a political consulting firm whose clients include former Senator Fred D. Thompson, a Republican who is set to run for president but has yet to declare his candidacy.
“The left’s unity of cause has allowed the Democrats to feed and use a motivated activist base,” Mr. Henke said. “For political activists, it’s more fun to storm the castle than to govern it.”
Michelle Malkin, another conservative blogger who wants all the Republicans to join the YouTube debate, said that “if they put a premium on getting their message across online, they wouldn’t have hesitated” to join the debate.
“But they want to use the medium only if they can control it,” Ms. Malkin said.
What no one really knows is how important an online strategy is to winning an election. Howard Dean showed in 2004 that raising more money online than other Democrats was no guarantee of winning the nomination. This year, while Mr. Giuliani’s online presence is regarded as relatively unevolved, he is leading other Republicans in national polls. Mr. Romney is leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Henke, for one, thinks the Democratic dominance on the Web will last only as long as the Democrats are out of power.
“Politics in America are very cyclical, and the left is on the upswing,” he said. “Elect President Hillary Clinton and you’ll see a much stronger Rightosphere as the right gradually finds leadership and develops the tools to deal with their grievances.”