Last month, members of MoveOn.org, an organization of 1.4 million liberal activists, held the country's first online primary to pick a Democrat to challenge President Bush. And the winner was? Nobody.
A candidate needed 50 percent of the vote to get the group's endorsement. The first-place finisher was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with 44 percent, followed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio with 24 percent, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts with 16 percent. None of the other six candidates reached double digits. No surprises there. Dean has long been seen as the favorite of educated upper-middle-class liberals, the wired Left.
Even though Dean didn't officially win the group's endorsement, contributions from MoveOn voters helped him raise more than $2 million in the final eight days of June. The money is probably more valuable than an endorsement—both from Dean's point of view and from MoveOn's.
What's interesting about MoveOn.org is not the group's preferences but its procedures. Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network—and no friend of MoveOn.org's politics—is an unabashed admirer of its technique. "All of a sudden, with access to the Internet and interactive databases, it's possible to have large-scale participation in politics in a very cheap manner," he noted.
"The Web has really changed politics," said Zack Exley, MoveOn.org's organizing director. "E-mail has made it easy for people to spread the word about an organization or a candidate or an activity." If only the Founding Fathers had had the Web!
MoveOn.org is the meeting of two worlds that don't often intersect—political junkies and Webheads. The organization was started in 1998 by Silicon Valley activists infuriated by the effort to impeach and remove President Clinton from office. "Move on!" was their rallying cry.
"They were really the first people who tried to figure out how to marshal the anger on the Web," observed Salon.com News Editor Joan Walsh. The organization did move on—to raise money for candidates who opposed impeachment, to protest the war in Iraq, and now to defeat Bush.
MoveOn has something of a fetish for participation and involvement. "They ask people to do things," Rosenberg said admiringly. "They treat their supporters like they are important people and not just donors." Exley described it this way: "People join our organization by taking some form of action, which sometimes means signing an online petition on our Web site. Sometimes it means calling their congressperson to speak out on an issue they care about."
For voters participating in MoveOn's primary, choosing a candidate was only the first step. They were then invited to give their e-mail addresses to the candidate, pledge a contribution, and volunteer for the campaign.
But what would a Democrat get by winning the group's endorsement? "We hope the MoveOn endorsement means we'll be able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of volunteers from now until the general election," Exley said. "And mobilize hundreds of thousands of dollars."
MoveOn is a way for liberals to raise money fast, over the Internet. That's the main reason candidates showed so much interest. Some 317,639 people voted in the MoveOn primary. Nearly 50,000 of them pledged contributions, raising an estimated total of $1.75 million for the Democratic contenders.
Political operatives see MoveOn as the wave of the future, a way to reconnect ordinary people to politics. As Rosenberg put it, "They really are at the cutting edge of a new model for how citizens participate in the political process." But he adds, "If they end up becoming a vehicle behind a single candidate, they are not adding a lot of value anymore to the political process."
Other campaigns complained that the MoveOn primary was rigged in favor of Dean. "The Dean campaign is fabulously organized on the Web," Walsh said. "When Salon writes a story, either pro or con Howard Dean, we hear from people immediately." But why the rigging charge? For one thing, MoveOn director Exley has done work for the Dean campaign. Moreover, after a straw poll of members, MoveOn allowed three "preferred" candidates—Dean, Kerry, and Kucinich—to send e-mail messages directly to its membership. Guess what? They were the top three vote-getters.
So why did other candidates even bother to campaign? "They wanted to prevent Howard Dean from running away with this thing," Rosenberg explained. Nevertheless, Dean's first-place finish and his second-quarter fundraising success are likely to pay off, at least with campaign insiders and the press. "If we raise $6.5 million in the second quarter, we will have placed our candidacy irrefutably in the top tier," Dean messaged his supporters last week—by e-mail, of course.
If Dean had won its endorsement, MoveOn would no longer be the voice of the activist Left. It would have become the voice of the Dean campaign. As it is, a majority of MoveOn voters said they could "enthusiastically support" any one of six of the Democrats running for President—all of them but Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and the Rev. Al Sharpton. MoveOn organizers say they could continue the voting, month after month, until someone wins the group's endorsement. Bad idea. Time to move on.