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Political junkies struggle with election withdrawal

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For some addicts, the end of the 2008 presidential campaign came as a welcome relief.

Rommel Quimson, an occupational therapist in Manhattan who devoured the latest political developments on CNN every night, is back to watching "nonsensical shows like 'Dancing With the Stars.' "

"Even though I feel some void that there's nothing to watch anymore, I'm also glad in some ways that it's over," said the 34-year-old. "You kind of get drained."

But other political news junkies are having trouble going cold turkey.

"I miss the suspense and the excitement," said Ledra Russell, 30, of St. Simons Island, Ga., who would obsessively check websites throughout the day. "I feel like there was a great big party and everybody left, and I'm still standing there with a party hat."

Across the country, election addicts are coping with withdrawal pangs. The 2008 race -- with its high stakes, dramatic twists and lightning-fast news cycles -- enthralled and exhausted news consumers. There were always new polls to analyze, updated electoral maps to scrutinize and a parade of commentators to applaud or raise a fist at. Cable news networks recorded triple-digit rating increases this fall. Political websites laid waste to traffic records.

"I'm not sure what I used to think about before the election," said Ann-Drea Burns, 40, a stay-at-home mom in Grand Rapids, Mich., who would TiVo MSNBC's "Morning Joe" each day. "I'm still TiVo-ing it but just yesterday thought, Do I really want to listen to these guys talk about Rahm Emanuel's temperament for an hour?"

Hoping for strong interest in the new administration, media outlets are now serving up details about President-elect Barack Obama's transition and mapping out coverage beyond the White House.

Nate Silver, the Chicago-based founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, a site that specialized in polling analysis and prognostication, is expecting a major traffic drop. "We knew that whatever traffic we had during the height of the election, we'd have 20% of that once the election was over," he said.

Silver, who was a baseball statistician before he was a pollster, is retooling the site to focus on the arguably more mundane arena of congressional voting "to make it less C-SPANy and more ESPNy."

Even if the public's interest in politics falls off, media executives argue that this year's campaign has permanently altered the way people use news.

If the 2006 midterm elections marked the introduction of YouTube as a political player, memorialized by then-Sen. George Allen's infamous on-camera “macaca” comment, belittling one of his Virginia opponent's aides, this year online video resembled a mature medium, used equally for news and satire. The video du jour is now never more than a click away, including those produced by voters who have found a potent new outlet for their partisan beliefs.

Mark Simonelli, a 43-year-old resident of Downingtown, Pa., didn't just read the websites of the National Review, the Weekly Standard and the Philadelphia Inquirer for political news. He also visited YouTube, where he and a business partner posted 14 videos, most of them recycled footage highlighting Obama's gaffes and inconsistencies. Several have been viewed tens of thousands of times, generating lively discussions. "It's a way for us to engage with people of a different mind-set," he said.

Since Sen. John McCain lost, Simonelli's political interest has temporarily waned, but he plans to resume his YouTube advocacy as soon as the postelection lull ends.

For many readers and viewers, 22 months of campaign obsession has trained them in the art of self-directed, on-demand news consumption.

"The revelation of the Internet and of this Internet election was that people wanted what they wanted when they wanted it," said Roy Sekoff, co-founder of the Huffington Post, which had the highest volume of traffic in its 3 1/2 -year history last week. "And that's what we were able to give them. I think that becomes habitual."

The combination of a serious economic crisis, two wars and a president-elect whom Sekoff called "one of the most compelling political personalities to come along in a long time" will be enough to keep news consumers in clover for the foreseeable future, he said.

Ryan Shiraki, for one, hasn't given up his campaign habits. The 38-year-old screenwriter, who works out of his Hollywood home, would start each morning checking the latest Rasmussen tracking poll online.

"Then I would be like, I wonder what Nate Silver has to say? And then the Daily Kos, and then it becomes this Internet sickness, rolling from one website to another, and suddenly it's an hour and half later and I'm still in my underwear," he said.

A week after the election, he's still seeking out political tidbits. "I want to know what kind of dog they're going to get and what's going to happen to Joe Lieberman," Shiraki said. "Politics has become dramatic and entertaining in that sense."

Websites like Politico.com are counting on that heightened interest to continue. The 2-year-old site set a traffic record with 11 million unique visitors in October and was still riding the election wave this week, with Monday's half-million visitors enough to put it alongside "our very biggest days ever in 2007," said Editor in Chief John Harris.

It's now introducing new features, like Politico 44, a multimedia page meant to be a continuously updated "diary" of news and events from the soon-to-be-formed Obama administration, the nation's 44th. "The audience is so demanding and reader habits are so fluid that you can't just assume you've got those people hooked," Harris said. "You've got to treat every day like the war that it is for attention, relevance and impact."

The cable news networks are primed to fight that battle. During the election, their audiences swelled: Fox News' prime-time ratings were up 40% in October, compared with October 2004, while CNN spiked 106% and MSNBC grew by 218%.

With the election over, "there's going to be a dip in the numbers," acknowledged MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "But the news isn't going away. It's not like people are going to say, 'Now I'm going back to soap operas.' "

Buoyed by their recent success, the cable networks plan to stay fixated on politics and the new administration's handling of the financial crisis. "For Obama supporters, there's the afterglow of the victory," said CNN President Jon Klein. "And for all Americans, there's the intense curiously about what this guy is going to do now."

Still, for many political junkies, the latest news doesn't pack the same wallop.

"It's not as exciting or sexy," said Bert McBrayer, 31, a stay-at-home dad in West Milton, Pa. "It's not John McCain attacking Obama for this or Obama defending himself on that. It's like, 'Here are some names being floated for Treasury secretary.' OK, sure."

Burns said she's already wistful for the "oh-my-God-what-did-I-miss" feeling she had during the campaign. "It was reality TV at its best/worst," she wrote in an e-mail. "I doubt I'll see Sen. Clinton doing a shot/beer again. I doubt I'll see Pres Elect Obama bowl ever again. Those were good times."

Gold and Sarno are Times staff writers.

matea.gold@latimes.com

david.sarno@latimes.com

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