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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Liberal Group Flexes Online Muscle in Its Very Own Primary

June 23, 2003|Ronald Brownstein

Across the political world, there's been a general assumption that ordinary voters won't cast any meaningful ballots in the Democratic presidential race until January, when the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary kick off the competition for delegates to the party convention.

But in fact, the first significant vote in the race will be cast this week -- not in Iowa or New Hampshire or any other state, but in cyberspace.

From 9 a.m. PDT today until 8:59 p.m. Wednesday, MoveOn.org, a 1.4-million-member Internet-based liberal advocacy group formed to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, will hold an online primary to determine whether it should endorse one of the nine Democratic presidential candidates. It's possible that more people will vote in this primary than in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests combined.

This New Age plebiscite could mark a significant turn in the 2004 race and a milestone in the development of the Internet as a political tool. The Internet probably won't replace television anytime soon as the dominant way campaigns communicate with voters. But its use is steadily growing. And if the MoveOn.org endorsement plays out as its sponsors hope, the process could enormously accelerate the Internet's use in campaigns.

"I expect that by the [2008] presidential election, there will be dozens of organizations like MoveOn," said Wes Boyd, the group's president.

No one can predict exactly how much support from MoveOn will be worth because no one has ever tried "to deliver a virtual group" in the presidential race on this scale, noted Steve Rabinowitz, a leading Democratic technology consultant. But MoveOn's track record suggests it could quickly become a major source of volunteers and money if one of the Democrats can cross the demanding threshold the group has established for providing its endorsement: capturing at least 50% of the votes cast.

"It could be a huge support, not just in grass roots, but in contributions," said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who's considered the clear favorite to win the group's support.

MoveOn qualifies as a genuine grass-roots phenomenon. It has no office and just four employees, all of whom work at home in different cities. It was founded in 1998 when Boyd and his wife, Joan Blades -- two wealthy Silicon Valley software developers -- put up a Web site with an electronic petition urging Congress to censure (rather than impeach) Clinton and "move on" to other issues. Within weeks, half a million people had signed on.

This surge of support suggested a new solution to one of the most daunting problems in political organizing. Traditionally, the biggest hurdle for advocacy groups is the cost of finding people who agree with them. Conventional causes (and campaigns) are forced to spend thousands of dollars, in direct mail or advertising, to locate potential supporters who will contribute the money they need to survive.

But the technology of the Internet allowed MoveOn's sympathizers to find the group. It acquired the lifeblood of every advocacy organization -- a list of committed, engaged members -- at virtually no cost except maintaining its Web site. In effect, the group created the political equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.

In the years since, the machine has continued to hum. Last fall, when MoveOn organized opposition to President Bush's push toward war with Iraq, 800,000 more people signed up; since then, it's added an additional 100,000 members around causes such as opposition to the Federal Communications Commission decision allowing big media companies to own more properties. "One of the big messages," said Boyd, "is when we fight, we get stronger."

From the start, MoveOn's members have shown a remarkable level of activism. The group raised $3.2 million from its membership list for candidates in 2000 and $4.1 million in 2002. In January, when it asked its members to donate $27,000 to fund a television ad opposing war with Iraq, $400,000 poured in. And when MoveOn urged its members to write the FCC to oppose the media ownership rules, more than 200,000 did so.

If a candidate wins the endorsement this week, MoveOn will make the same sort of appeals to its members for him or her. That could be worth millions of dollars.

All of which helps explain why the Democratic contenders are treating the MoveOn primary so seriously. Each candidate has posted an appeal on the group's Web site (www.moveon.org). And the campaigns are urging their own supporters to participate in the MoveOn primary -- which is open to anyone who registers at the Web site by tonight.

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