Even though conservatives are holding their own convention of online activists in Pittsburgh this week, they are not trying to directly compete with the giant Netroots Nation. If they did, they would be squashed.
The RightOnline conference starting tomorrow morning at the Sheraton Station Square will have about a quarter of the 2,000 attendees at the liberal conference in the convention center, and only about 20 speakers to the 400 at Netroots. Liberals are throwing multiple parties at the Warhol and a gay-lesbian kiss-in. Conservatives end Friday night with a film criticizing Al Gore.
Right-wing activists know very well they are being out-gunned by the left online, which is precisely why they are holding the conference. They held the first RightOnline convention in Austin, Texas, to coincide with last year's Netroots Nation meeting there, too.
"We used it as a rallying point to get the folks on our side more engaged and active online, and to effectively leverage the power of the Internet," said Erik Telford, online strategy director for the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which sponsors the RightOnline conference.
"We need to catch up to the left and get our capacities and strengths fostered online," he said.
Democrats had their own rallying point -- George W. Bush -- when the DailyKos blog launched in 2002 and held its first convention (the predecessor to Netroots Nation) four years later. Left wing sites including Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post grew through the decade, and Barack Obama, building on online work by fellow Democrat Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential campaign, used a 13-million-member e-mail list to assist his winning bid last year.
Meanwhile, Republicans were still reading the Drudge Report, a rather old-fashioned (in Web years) news-aggregator.
"The problem by and large remains that on the right, the focus still tends to be on punditry as opposed to activism," said Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState, and a speaker at RightOnline on Saturday. "It has been focused on bloggers trying to be the next Rush Limbaugh or the next columnist, not on urging readers to call members of Congress or go to tea parties."
It's not all bad news for conservatives. Opposition to Mr. Obama has helped build some momentum -- just as it did for the left in the Bush years -- and newer conservative sites are seeing growth. The site HotAir (founded in 2006 by writer Michelle Malkin, another RightOnline speaker) now has 849,000 daily visits, just 10,000 fewer than DailyKos, according to Site Meter.
The momentum is paying off in the well-publicized opposition to the president's health care plans at town hall meetings, including a raucous one hosted Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. Much of the attention initially came from videos on YouTube (posted by both left and right wing sites), which had not even been invented the last time Mr. Specter ran for Senate in 2004.
"The Web takes a big role. Specter was berated for an hour and half in Lebanon County. In the past, no one would have known, except those at the meeting or the moderate readership of the local paper," said Pat Toomey, who narrowly lost the Republican primary to Mr. Specter five years ago, and is running again next year.
Web video "is very engaging and very interesting. It helps spur activism," said Mr. Toomey, the keynote RightOnline speaker tomorrow night. Despite that, Mr. Toomey was quick to say that the bulk of the town hall opposition was not Web-generated. Old-time activism still plays a major role.
"It is very, very hard to generate crowds of people that large unless it is truly spontaneous. This is genuinely touching a chord with a lot of people," the former Club for Growth president said. "The radical nature of [the Democratic] agenda is in fact frightening many people."
Tim McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.