Hagel's Internet Movement: A Success That Hasn't Occurred Yet

In a front page article about Republican Senator Chuck Hagel's presidential prospects, the Washington Post reports that Hagel's opposition to escalating the Iraq war has made him very popular, even on the left. How popular? Here's the proof:

An Internet "draft Hagel" movement has formed, and even die-hard liberals admit they find him appealing.

But the article's only evidence for this Internet "movement" is a pro-Hagel column by esteemed liberal journalist Robert Scheer, posted at the web magazine Truthdig.com. Scheer says he would vote for Hagel over a Democratic candidate who won't "take a clear stand on the occupation." The column is great, but it's no movement.

There are a few blogs talking up Hagel, like Chuck Hagel for President in 2008, but they aren't even collecting emails or draft petitions. The bar for Internet drafts is pretty low nowadays, but it's not that low.

So why was a project with no dedicated website, no supporter lists and no organizing events declared an Internet movement on the front page of the most important political newspaper in the country?

One answer is that Internet politics has arrived. People now recognize there is serious power online. Traditional political and media elites are adapting, but their ability to accurately identify the power has not caught up with the realization that they should monitor -- or engage -- the new players. It can be hard to figure out who the players are, and there are a lot more of them than before. As Yochai Benkler has observed, whether its politics, business or culture production, incumbents typically struggle to adapt when technology suddenly enables a new "networked information economy."

It's important to note that this was not some niche Washington Post article about blogs. It was a major story about a potential presidential candidate, quoting three U.S. Senators and Scheer's online column. The Post reporter determined that Hagel's political future could be significantly affected by Internet politics. He could launch an anti-war campaign from the right, find potential support and money from websites on the left, and garner plenty of votes from the middle. Internet power would be crucial for that kind of campaign, and it is a plausible scenario. But it has not happened yet, so it's inaccurate to stretch a few Internet postings into a draft movement.

There are much better ways to gauge online interest in presidential hopefuls. Micah Sifry has been using four metrics: incoming blog links, MySpace friends, Facebook friends and Flickr photos. Hagel is not dominating those fields. In fact, it turns out bloggers don't talk about him that much in general. Technorati's list of English blogs with "some authority" - a satellite snapshot of the blogosphere - shows Hagel has been referenced well under 100 times a day over the past year, with one big spike this month.

After his inspiring call to stop the Iraq escalation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Hagel hit McCain-like numbers in the blogosphere for the first time. (He's still far behind Gore.) Regardless of party or ideology, if you watch Hagel's Senate testimony, delivered from the heart without notes, you will probably wish America had more leaders like Chuck Hagel. That kind of leadership might even inspire a real movement.

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Cross-posted at Personal Democracy Forum.

Update: More on Hagel in response at The Right's Field.