Web Fuels Collective Sparring Over Bolton, but to What End?

Web Fuels Collective Sparring Over Bolton, but to What End?

BY Kate Kaye | Wednesday, May 25 2005

As far as staff and members of conservative Web-based group, Move America Forward, were concerned, Senator George Voinovich had stabbed the President and the Republicans in the back. On April 19, under rising pressure from both sides, the Republican Senator from Ohio revealed to his fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members that he “[didn’t] feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton." He had dissed President Bush’s UN Ambassador nominee, John Bolton, and that just didn’t sit right with the supporters of Move America Forward, an organization formed about a year ago in support of the War in Iraq and the war on terror.

"People were calling us, emailing us...saying ‘fight, fight, fight -- get in there,’ “ says MAF’s executive director Siobhan Guiney. She describes a whirlwind radio campaign launched in Ohio on April 21, as prodded by the group’s members, many of whom were willing to cough up the funds via the Web to get the ad on the air. "Within two hours [of Voinovich's declaration] we were activated," Guiney continues.

As part of a pro-Bolton campaign already in gear, the MAF ad encouraged listeners to visit the MAF site and “register [their] protest with Senator Voinovich’s office.” The MAF site listed the Senator’s office phone numbers and email addresses to contact his staff directly. Just a few days after launching the radio ads, on April 25, MAF announced it would curtail the campaign that day, noting in a press release that they had “received reassurances from very reliable sources that Senator Voinovich has obtained a new and fair outlook on the Bolton nomination.” According to the release, the group spent tens of thousands running ads in Ohio on news and talk radio stations. The announcement also boasted, “On Thursday, the day the ads began running, Voinovich’s office phones were jammed with callers and computer e-mail in-baskets were clogged with messages related to the Bolton confirmation. It was no better Friday.”

Good for Nothing?
The relatively cheap and rapid communication enabled by the Internet has propelled countless grassroots advocacy organizations like MAF, ignited by an increasingly rabid partisan political atmosphere, to accumulate members, cash -- and in some cases, clout -- in record time. And they’re wielding this perceived power, achieved in part or sometimes almost entirely online, in a variety of other media in the hopes of pushing their pet issues to the fore.

The nomination of John Bolton, a highly controversial figure who’s brought out venom from his supporters and detractors, is one of several recently contentious issues that advocacy groups have centered campaigns around, and employed to propel their recognition and status. Thanks to the Net, rallying the troops around an issue and amassing a financial arsenal in a matter of days or even hours is becoming an increasingly achievable feat.

But do online fundraising-fueled campaigns prompting concerned citizens to call and email their representatives (and often those representing other constituencies) really make a difference?

“I think some of these campaigns do not have the impact [the organizations would] like them to have,” opines Marcie Ridgway, communications director for Senator Voinovich. She affirms that the phones at the Senator’s office were “constantly busy, especially during that week of the [MAF radio] ads.” The office was also subject to a deluge of email at that time. However, while MAF targeted its radio ads to Ohio, Ridgway insists that the majority of callers said they were from states other than Ohio when asked. The majority of emails, too, were sent from people living outside the Buckeye State, adds Ridgway, which means the Senator is less apt to pay them mind than he is the opinions of his constituents.

Perhaps even more intriguing, Ridgway estimates that the calls and emails directed to the Senator’s office during the week of and the week following the MAF radio campaign were about a 50/50 split: half pro- and half anti-Bolton.

“When it comes to things like [the Bolton nomination], the Senator really does what’s right for the American people,” explains Ridgway of Senator Voinovich. “He really didn’t pay all that much attention to the [MAF] ads that came out. They just really don’t make a difference.” Ridgway stresses the complexity of the issue, and the high value the Senator places on messages from Ohio residents over those of other states. According to Ridgway, a substantial number of emails sent around the time of the MAF radio campaign originated in Sacramento, CA, where MAF is physically based.

It appears the calls and emails in support of Bolton didn’t convince the Senator either, considering his May 13 suggestion that “the United States can do better than John Bolton." That statement prompted the committee to pass the nomination along for a full-Senate vote with no recommendation at all. Senator Voinovich made his opinion even more clear this Tuesday when he referred to Bolton in a letter to his fellow Senators: "In these dangerous times, we cannot afford to put at risk our nation's ability to successfully wage and win the war on terror with a controversial and ineffective ambassador to the United Nations." The Senate is expected to vote on the nomination as early as tomorrow.

“If the way to change the mind of a Senator on issues instead of through lobbyists is phone calls, just hire a speed-dialer,” quips Stephen Hourahan, press secretary for Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the direct target of a novel online ad campaign paid for by the Friends of John Kerry that ran last month. It appeared to be the first time a Senator targeted a group of citizens to influence another Senator’s vote. In early April, the Kerry camp targeted Web ads geographically to Rhode Island residents only, in hopes of convincing citizens of the rogue state to petition their moderate Republican Senator to break ranks with the GOP and vote against Bolton's nomination while it was still in committee. The ads, which prominently featured John Kerry, ran on sites including The Providence Journal, WashingtonPost.com, Weather.com and USAToday.com, as well as some blogs like the one written by David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. Like many other advocacy groups addressing the issue, Friends of John Kerry also ran Google search ads pegged to the keywords, “John Bolton.”

Drowning Out John Q. Public
While Hourahan acknowledges that Senator Chafee takes calls and emails regarding such issues into account, he concludes, “Ultimately, from a campaign point of view, these mass efforts can take away from the impact that individuals can have – the folks who read about it in the paper and decide on their own to make contact.”

Hourahan says that Senator Chafee’s office received “a couple thousand” phone calls around the time of the Kerry campaign, mostly against the Bolton nomination. Several hundred emails voicing Bolton-related opinions were received around that time, too. There may have been hundreds more if it weren’t for the filter on the office’s email system that screens out emails sent from outside of Rhode Island. Like many on Capitol Hill, Senator Chafee prefers to focus on what the constituents in the state he represents have to say. After all, they decide if he gets to stay in the Senate.

Senator Chafee and his staff do pay attention to emails and calls initiated by advocacy groups, admits Hourahan, “but after a while when you have so many calls and emails and blast faxes from one phone number, impact subsides.” Advocacy organizations often call their members, then patch them through to the government official of choice, which some say results in calls from people who have no idea what they’re supposed to be for or against.

“We actually make sure that the folks are constituents,” explains Bill Greene, president of RightMarch.com, who says the conservative group typically targets its campaigns geographically. “In that case you have much more of a grassroots campaign,” he says. In addition to search ads on Google and radio ads targeting listeners in Rhode Island, RightMarch.com has relied heavily on email to spur members to take action to support the Bolton nomination, by donating to fund the campaign or contacting specific Senators. The organization sent targeted emails to its members in Rhode Island, Ohio and Nebraska urging them to contact their Republican Senators, Chafee, Voinovich and Chuck Hagel, respectively. The goal, says Greene, is to “counter and match [voices on the left] with voices on the right.”

RightMarch also sells faxes that are sent to all Republicans, all Democrats or all Senators. The group had sold around 30,000 faxes in support of John Bolton as of the first week of this month, according to Greene. RightMarch also enables online purchases of hand-delivered messages sent to Capitol Hill offices through Capitol Advantage and Western Union for $8.95 each.

The Futility of the Form Letter
StopBolton.org, a project developed by Citizens for Global Solutions and buttressed by a number of other advocacy groups, made May 10 (two days before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote on the Bolton nomination) its “National Call-in Day,” imploring people to call their Senators “and urge them to oppose John Bolton’s nomination.” The StopBolton.org site stressed, “Calls to Senators Hagel, Chafee, Voinovich and Murkowski are especially important.” A member of the committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is another Republican whom groups on the left and right singled out as pivotal to the outcome of the vote.

Citizens for Global Solutions targeted radio and television ads to home-states of key Senators on the committee, and also made a “huge push externally to get the story out to blogs,” says Harpinder Athwal, the group’s director of communications. The organization has also sent regular action alerts via email to its members encouraging them to contact Senators on the committee.

Like the StopBolton site which features a form letter that can be personalized and emailed to specific Senators, Council for a Livable World offers a form email letter to President Bush that includes suggested text that reads, “The American people deserve a better representative at the United Nations than John Bolton.” As of May 11, over 7,000 email messages were sent through the Web form, according to the group’s chief operating officer, Guy Stevens. He says that when physical addresses of supporters are available, CLW has “sent targeted emails to committee-members' states.”

Senator Murkowski is “very aware” of incoming phone calls and emails regarding the Bolton issue, says her communications director, Kristin Pugh. However, the Senator pays most attention to messages and calls from constituents that aren’t part of mass efforts, asserts Pugh, who suggests, “It’s very easy to tell the difference between a form letter” and one that is written by an individual. Pugh estimates that the Senator has received around 800 form email letters regarding the Bolton nomination, only about half of which were from Alaskan residents. Most of those emails as well as calls received by the Senator have been from citizens against Bolton’s nomination.

Although staffers like Pugh and others imply that comments sent from out-of-state or as part of an advocacy campaign are often taken with little more than a grain of salt by Senators, CLW’s Stevens defends such collective efforts. “We believe that Senate staff recognize that even though our activists are responding to our call to action, they are responding based on their own deeply held beliefs,” he contends. “We are only keeping them informed and giving them an easy tool to send a message to their Senators.”

Civic Hall
Personal Democracy Media presents Civic Hall, a one-of-a-kind community center for the world’s civic innovators. Located in the heart of New York City, Civic Hall is your home for civic tech.


Sign up for email updates from Personal Democracy Media and Civic Hall.