Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 9th, 2006
To begin with, I want to strongly emphasize the precise title of this post. It is true, but it may imply the opposite to some — that there is or was in fact some kind of astroturfing operation (a paid public relations campaign masquerading as an authentic grassroots campaign) defending Allen’s notorious “macaca” remark of mid-August. The evidence available to me does not prove that implication — nor does it disprove it.
However, given (1) continued questions about a comment left at this blog, (2) how widespread astroturfing has become, and (3) the particular track record of Dick Wadhams, George Allen ‘s campaign manager, it’s legitimate to ask questions. If by doing so — while remaining honest about the limits of my knowledge — I help prevent (rather than discover) political astroturfing by the Allen campaign or any other campaign, I think the cause of truthful political discourse is well served.
I recently posted “Their voice. Amplified.” or Why I’m banning 151.200.70.* comments” based on a comment whose contents and author I decided not to specify at the time. The commenter’s IP address led to “Democracy, Data & Communications” (DD&C), a firm that turns out to be hosting a number of cookie-cutter online organizations on behalf of causes like Social Security “reform,” tobacco companies, “merit shop”construction hiring, and (in 2004) directly for George W. Bush. Many of the organizations appear to forward interested parties into a Chamber of Commerce “voteforbusiness.org” central database. DD&C also has an affiliated “OnPoint Advocacy” operation, which notes on its web site:
OnPoint Advocacy understands how difficult it can be to generate the amount and quality of support you need, especially within tight timeframes or on specialized issues. That’s why we often turn to the Web to help our clients quickly build high-volume support for a campaign.
Last Friday, I decided to e-mail the commenter — who I’ll continue to leave unnamed in this post — the following question:
You recently left a comment on my blog re the George Allen “macaque/macaca” statement. (The post is “Welcome to America,” George and the URL is http://[...etcetera].)
Do you work for Democracy, Data & Communications or for the related business called OnPoint Advocacy? If so, was the comment you left at my blog post part of that work? And if so, is this work paid for by Senator Allen’s campaign, or is it done free of charge by DD&C?
Somewhat to my surprise, I got a reply; in reply to a second e-mail from me, I also got his permission to summarize his first response. To wit: (1) yes, he works for OnPoint, and (2) no, there was no DD&C or OnPoint campaign he was aware of on behalf of George Allen’s Senate campaign or any other campaign; OnPoint (and as far as he knew, DD&C) didn’t engage in candidate support activities because they’re nonpartisan and want a wide client base.
Given that I might have learned (a) nothing at all, (b) he was a friend of a DD&C employee who happened to type his (paraphrasing) “macaca? big deal” comment, (c) some innocent technical explanation for the IP address I saw, or (d) some other innocent explanation I haven’t thought of, I have slightly more I can report than before; hence, after some hesitation, this post.
But hence this post also because try as I might, and despite his earnest wish, I don’t entirely trust Mr. Commenter. Perhaps it’s a small thing, but he claimed to visit my post via a conservative blog, when he in fact visited via a Washington Post technorati list of blogs linking to an op-ed about the “macaque” incident — a much better source for systematically trawling sites lambasting Allen’s racist and indefensible remark. Also, as mentioned above, DD&C had once hosted a www.voteforgeorgewbush.com site — partisan enough, I’d say.
What’s more, George Allen’s campaign manager Dick Wadhams has a history of paying for supposedly spontaneous outbursts of Internet citizenship. A Slate profile of Wadhams recalls his work for John Thune against Tom Daschle in the 2004 South Dakota Senate election:
Another way to control a campaign is to shape its news coverage, and Wadhams found a new way to do that for the Thune campaign. South Dakota Republicans had long accused the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the state’s most influential paper, of being pro-Daschle. When two bloggers, Jason Van Beek and Jon Lauck, began cataloguing alleged acts of bias like lack of criticism of Linda Daschle’s lobbying practice, Wadhams hired them as campaign researchers. Wadhams insists he wasn’t underwriting the bloggers’ online enterprises. But Van Beek and Lauck didn’t disclose that the Thune campaign was cutting them checks.
Fast forward to 2006 and the imploding George Allen campaign following the “macaca” or macaque” remark. Naturally, Wadhams wanted to find the next Van Beek and Lauck to turn the tide, as HotLine reported on August 22nd (“Allen’s Campaign Shifts Gears, Seeks Help“):
Burned by a blog-induced firestorm over an an off-hand comment at a campaign rally, Sen. George Allen’s campaign is seeking a conservative blog maven who can blunt future attacks and help rally conservatives in the state and elsewhere behind Allen’s campaign.
But the going was a little tougher. Similar to what happened in the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond affair, not just lefty bloggers but conservative bloggers were turned off by Allen’s “macaca/macaque” remark. An August 27 straw poll at conservative supersite RedState revealed in black and white what Wadhams might have already known after the tenth phone call or e-mail a week earlier: Allen was radioactive. RedState’s “machiavel”:
The Macaca incident has clearly devastated Allen’s numbers in the blogosphere, his stronghold. He used to have sky-high favorability, largely because he hadn’t done anything to offend anyone. He also used to run first or second (tangling with Giuliani) with 20% to 30% in polls like this. Once undefined, he has now been defined in a hugely negative way, dropping to fourth with 11.5% support.
Assuming Wadhams continues to see the Internet as a crucial battleground, and with conservative bloggers thus out of the picture for the moment, one of his few options would be to influence comments, which can be anonymous or essentially so. Now Allen made his infamous remark on August 12, and my post about it was posted on the 15th. So that’s all earlier than the HotLine or RedState items I’ve cited. On the other hand, it didn’t take a genius to see how bad the incident was. And if I can recall the Lott/Thurmond story, so can Wadhams.
For what it’s worth, I’ve actually checked some of the Allen campaign’s financial reports* — the disbursement sections come at the end of long, long .PDF files — and found nothing paid out to DD&C or OnPoint Advocacy, at least. Of course, (a) I may have missed something, and (b) the latest one was in July, so that doesn’t prove much either. I’ll be back for the next set.
It would also seem like a “newbie” mistake to not mask one’s IP address by working from home or by more technical means. On the other hand, I would have been unlikely to figure out anything about the visit were my blog more popular: standard issue sitemeters like mine only keep detailed records of the last hundred visits — a satisfactory day’s worth of traffic for me, but something that sites like TPMCafe, Instapundit, or other bigfoot blogs see in a matter of a few minutes.
So nothing is proven — other than that someone identifying himself as an OnPoint Advocacy employee left a comment minimizing Allen’s “macaca” remark on this blog. By itself, that’s no campaign. But given Wadhams, DD&C, and OnPoint, the “Occam’s Razor” simplest explanation still teeters right on the knife edge between “astroturf shill” and “websurfing on lunch break.”
While nothing is proven, questions are appropriate. Here are some:
- To OnPoint Advocacy and DD&C: are you employing people to comment on blogs and elsewhere in support of political candidates, or have you ever done so? If so, which ones? And if so, will they identify themselves or have they identified themselves as paid employees of an organization hired by a political campaign?
- To the blogosphere: do you think there’s evidence of increased “troll” activity on behalf of George Allen?
- To Dick Wadhams: are you employing people to blog or comment on blogs and elsewhere in support of George Allen, or have you ever done so? If so, will they identify themselves or have they always identified themselves as paid employees of the George Allen Senate campaign?
- To George Allen: can you promise not to hire shills to support you in online discussions of your “macaca” remark or other aspects of your Senate campaign?
* FEC Friends of George Allen campaign committee report page: April (amended), July 2006 quarterly reports (PDF; large). No time yet to look at the George Allen Victory Committee (last filing in April 2006). Interestingly, the George Allen for President Draft Committee has drawn an FEC “Notice of Failure to File” for the second quarter of 2006.
NOTES: (1) RedState item via Raising Kaine diarist “Rob”. (2) DD&C is also associated with a relatively small PAC, which has given $1500 to Republican candidates in the 2006 cycle: Michael Steele (R-MD) and John Ensign (R-NV).
EDIT, 9/14: added “or have you ever done so” and related modifications of questions.