Progressive popularity contest

The winner of MoveOn.org's online "primary" could rake in millions of dollars and command an army of volunteers.


Michelle Goldberg
June 24, 2003 11:35PM (UTC)

This week's virtual Democratic primary, sponsored by the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, may not carry the weight of a state contest, but it could have far more influence than just another online poll. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to cast ballots in the Internet election, and the victor could net millions in campaign cash, as well as a big boost in buzz.

MoveOn has billed the primary, which begins today and will be open for 48 hours, as an attempt to get liberals involved in the Democratic kingmaking process early in the presidential campaign. The group's leaders say they want their people to decide who they think is a viable candidate, before corporate donors and droning pundits decide for them. Some Democratic critics say that MoveOn is stacking the deck in favor of its favorite candidates. Yet even if MoveOn's detractors dispute the contest's legitimacy, they concede its importance. MoveOn has promised the winning candidate the organization's full support, a pledge that could involve millions of dollars and an army of volunteers. The group, which formed in 1998 to fight Clinton's impeachment, raised $4.1 million for congressional candidates in 2002. Since then, its membership has tripled to 1.4 million.

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Given that there are nine candidates in the race, it's unlikely that anyone is going to come out of the two-day online poll with the 50 percent of the vote necessary to garner MoveOn's official endorsement. In that case, MoveOn says it will hold more primaries in the future, until one candidate finally takes more than half the votes. Still, even if no one comes out on top in the first round, the vote will gauge where the grass-roots support is on the Democratic left -- providing, that is, enough people participate. "The question is, does this process engage MoveOn's membership?" says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a Washington progressive group. "If it does, it will be a very powerful expression of progressive opinion."

All of MoveOn's members are automatically registered for the online survey, and anyone else can sign up as well, whether or not they're registered to vote. Voters are asked to certify that they are at least 18 years of age and United States citizens. So far, more than 75,000 non-MoveOn members have added their names to the rolls. Wes Boyd, co-founder of MoveOn, expects a few hundred thousand people to participate. MoveOn is taking some precautions to avoid virtual voter fraud, limiting votes to one per e-mail address and using exit polls to spot-check the accuracy of the personal information voters provide.

Still, the process relies to some extent on the integrity of the participants. "Nothing is perfect, but I'll bet we do a better job than most public elections," says Boyd. "We expect any gaming of the process to be very marginal. Most people are very honest."

Whether the MoveOn primary yields a meaningful measure of progressive support, Democratic aspirants are certainly taking it seriously -- some with grace, some with grumbling. The front-runners in the online race -- Howard Dean, John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich -- are trying to get out the vote while praising MoveOn for enhancing the democratic process. Those expected to fare poorly in the primary are attacking a process they say is skewed against their candidates, even as they urge their people to participate.

MoveOn's critics aren't wrong -- the process is tilted toward candidates favored by the group's progressive base. But MoveOn has never claimed to be a disinterested party, which is part of what makes the primary unique. It's less a survey of Democrats than a contest for the endorsement of American progressives, a group MoveOn aims to organize to balance the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

"It's very empowering to members of MoveOn that, collectively, they can make a difference early when the only people speaking are the ones who can afford to give $2,000 to a campaign," says Borosage. "By the end of June, there will be articles about who's viable and who's not. By then you'll have a sense of who is a real candidate in financial terms. The MoveOn primary, if it creates enough attention and reaches a conclusion, will be in play during that same period. It will start to raise money for the candidate that is supported and, more importantly, give that candidate a real boost of excitement and energy."

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The controversy over MoveOn's methods stems from the group's decision to provide additional exposure to Dean, Kucinich and Kerry, the three candidates who came out on top in MoveOn's May 29 straw poll. Before the primary, all of the Democratic contenders were invited to submit a letter to MoveOn members and to answer seven questions about their stands on progressive issues. Only Dean, Kucinich and Kerry, though, had their letters e-mailed to MoveOn members, much to the displeasure of their Democratic rivals -- last week, a Gephardt campaign staffer suggested the process was "rigged."

Some Democrats were further alarmed by the fact that Zack Exley, MoveOn's organizing director, took a two-and-a-half-week leave of absence to work on Howard Dean's Internet campaign. "A lot of people have raised questions about MoveOn showing favoritism toward Howard Dean," says an operative on one of the Democratic campaigns. "The onus is on MoveOn to make clear that they are not playing favorites with one of these candidates. However, it may be too late at this point in the process, given that an employee of MoveOn previously helped on Dean's campaign and the e-mails have already gone out."

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Dean, meanwhile, has (predictably) defended MoveOn, expressing shock at the other campaigns' whining. "To question the integrity of MoveOn and its 1.4 million members is outrageous and only serves to further erode the American people's belief that their voices matter," he said in a statement last week. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has suggested that the only reason complaining candidates are participating in the primary is to make sure Dean doesn't get 50 percent of the vote and the potential war chest that would come with it.

Boyd continues to insist that the controversy misses the point, since MoveOn makes no secret of favoring candidates that share its members' values. "We are giving more presence to three of the nine candidates, so it's natural for some of the candidates to complain about that, but they did agree to the process and we are going forward with it," he says.

As for Exley's work with the Dean campaign, Boyd argues that given Dean's emphasis on using the Web to organize progressives, it makes sense that his campaign would seek expertise from MoveOn. "We've offered to share best practices publicly and privately for many years," says Boyd. "I've personally made the offer to staffers at dozens of campaigns and advocacy organizations. The Dean campaign is the first presidential campaign to show significant interest in our on-the-ground organizing using the Web. They asked Zack to spend a couple of weeks to get them up to speed, and we didn't stand in the way. Zack took a leave from MoveOn PAC [MoveOn's lobbying arm] to do this."

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While a few candidates fume, one detects a certain amount of glee among staffers of the more progressive campaigns at seeing the staid centrists marginalized for a change. "Dennis has had phenomenal success at his speeches around the country," says David Kelley, issues director for the Dennis Kucinich campaign. "But [some] people, far before the campaign is really in full swing, have already consigned him to being a minor player." If Kucinich beats so-called first-tier candidates in the online primary, "A lot of people will have egg on their faces, and MoveOn is one of the groups that will help deliver that little bit of yolk."

That's not quite what MoveOn says it's aiming for, but the group openly admits that it is trying to gain a bit of control over the means by which the Democratic candidate is chosen so that progressive issues aren't shunted aside. Boyd says the "fundamental reason" MoveOn organized the primary is because "we think the field is being determined now" in venues off-limits to ordinary voters. "Why shouldn't ordinary people play?" he asks. "We as a group had discussed this for a while. The general advice we've gotten is lay back and wait and see what happens, because you don't want to take the risk of getting involved with a candidate who's not going to go the distance. For us that's not the point. We think ordinary citizens should get involved when decisions are being made."

The questions MoveOn asked Democratic hopefuls reflect the group's interest in defining issues, as well as picking candidates. Members participated, via the Internet, in framing and selecting the queries, seven of which were ultimately put to the candidates. (Only Joe Lieberman declined to answer them.) They are not the kind of questions that come up on talk shows or TV debates. "The enactment of Patriot Act I is a dangerous erosion of civil liberties in the United States," begins one. "The proposed Patriot Act II is even more frightening. The purpose of both pieces of legislations [sic] seems to be the stifling of dissent rather than improving security in the U.S. If elected would you revisit the Patriot Act with the view of revising or repealing it?" Another, about intelligence failures under Bush's watch, asks, "Will any candidate demand the truth and an end to this conspiracy of deceit?" A third wants to know how the candidate proposes to communicate "the disastrous effects of the current administration" to a scared or complacent public.

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By getting candidates to answer questions with a distinctly progressive spin, MoveOn hopes to engage left-leaning Democrats, alienated by mainstream politics, in an electoral process that addresses their issues. "These are people saying, 'Don't let other people make up your mind,'" Kelley says of MoveOn. "You make up your mind. Look at their positions on the Patriot Act, on the tax cut, you take a look at them and you decide. Don't have a newspaper say who's 'electable.' That's your decision."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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