Online left is running scared

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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If I’d told you three years ago that conservatives would be leading the left in the realm of online politics, I would have been laughed out of the room. Now we’re dominating so thoroughly that the left is running scared — literally.

One of the key drivers of the left’s online dominance used to be the Netroots Nation Convention, an annual gathering of several thousand left-wing bloggers. Started in 2006, the convention provides attendees with networking opportunities and trains them to more effectively organize and mobilize “progressives” through the Internet.

Realizing that conservatives had some catching up to do, and that it would be an uphill battle, I launched RightOnline in 2008 as a project of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. We used Netroots Nation as a rallying point and took them head on in Austin, Texas. And we’ve been doing it ever since: Pittsburgh in 2009, Las Vegas in 2010, and just last week in Minneapolis.

This year, The New York Times declared the conservative side victorious, saying: “judging by the fervor for one’s favorites and animosity toward the opposition, the passion of bloggers seemed to have swung toward conservatives.” The Washington Post noted “the only chants of ‘Yes We Can’ seemed to be at RightOnline.”

Clearly, the tables have turned in a dramatic way. President Obama’s much-vaunted online army has fallen flat on its face, failing to deliver. In fact, the president has found himself embattled in the new media sphere — with attacks from both his left and his right. Call it reverse triangulation.

Just a few weeks ago, the White House acknowledged its shift from an offensive to a defensive posture with the addition of Jesse Lee — who, as the “Director of Progressive Media & Online Response,” is charged with the unenviable task of defending the president from critical bloggers and online activists from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

At the same time, Tea Party groups are using technology to organize and mobilize in unprecedented ways. Republican members of Congress are better than their Democratic counterparts at using Facebook and Twitter to inform and motivate their constituents. Conservative activists have raised millions of dollars for their candidates, recruited tens of thousands of supporters to attend rallies and protests, and influenced legislation at all levels of government with a click of the mouse.

Even liberals realize they’ve fallen behind. Under the headline “Democrats look to Twitter to reverse fortunes for 2012,” a March article in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call indicated Democrats now acknowledge they are outnumbered on Twitter, the leading edge of online activism.

Ironically, the most adept new media maven among Congressional Democrats, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, ended his career by tragically misusing social media tools. In the process, he became the first Democratic online loser of the 2012 cycle.

It would seem our counterparts on the left are not coping well with this stunning reversal of fortunes. When they announced Providence, Rhode Island as their location for next year’s conference, Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots Nation, took to Twitter, stating “Good luck finding a venue in 2012 #ro11 [RightOnline] folks. Two words, non-compete clause. Hugs and kisses, #nn11 [Netroots Nation].”

This was followed by a statement from Nolan Treadway, the political and logistics director of Netroots, saying “Ideally, I’d like AFP not to exist.”

They can run, but they can’t hide. Conservatives are decisively winning online and the left, afraid of having a real debate, is desperately trying to take their ball and go home.

We haven’t decided whether or not to take on Netroots in Providence next year, and frankly I think it might make more sense to take RightOnline to a battleground state. When I mentioned that to a colleague, he suggested: “By 2012, Rhode Island will be a battleground state.” At the rate the left is collapsing, he may be right.

Erik Telford is Executive Director of RightOnline and Director of Online Strategy for Americans for Prosperity.