Most likely to succeed

Howard Dean won's online primary, but he didn't get enough votes to take the spoils -- a MoveOn endorsement and contributions galore.

By Michelle Goldberg
June 28, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)
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When the 317,647 ballots in's online Democratic primary were totaled Friday afternoon, none of the other eight candidates came close to Howard Dean. With nearly 44 percent of the virtual vote, Dean fell short of the majority necessary to garner MoveOn's influential endorsement and the millions in campaign cash that would likely come with it. But as the clear victor in a cluttered field of contenders, he proved, at the very least, that he is the top pick of well-educated, cyber-savvy Democratic activists who are registered with MoveOn, an organization that claims 1.4 million members in all. Behind Dean in the Internet voting were Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, with around 24 percent, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., with a disappointing 15.7 percent.

"We're ecstatic about the 44 percent," says Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. "We thought, given the number of candidates and the fact that you can vote 'undecided' or 'other,' we'd be lucky to end up with 30." Trippi was eager to paint his boss's big win as a momentous event -- and not just for the Dean campaign. "This is an historic event in American politics," he said. "It's a primary where hundreds of thousands of people got together early on and said this is who we support right now. Hundreds of thousands of Americans participated in their democracy today."


It appears that the vast majority of the participants were genuine, casting their votes without ulterior motives. Denizens of the far-right Free Republic Web site made plans on their bulletin boards to purposely skew the election to Al Sharpton, but Sharpton's paltry .53 percent showing suggests they didn't have much effect. According to MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd, the 50,000 non-MoveOn members who registered and participated in the vote tended to vote much like their MoveOn member counterparts. To prevent any monkeying with the process, MoveOn hired the survey company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. to do telephone exit polling, and the company wrote a letter after the voting ended confirming the results: "The consistency between the online vote results and the telephone survey confirms the integrity of the online vote."

Enjoying something of a post-election glow, MoveOn emphasized the fact that more people voted in its contest -- which ran over 48 hours on Wednesday and Thursday -- than participate in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and the Iowa caucus combined. Yet no matter how accurately the MoveOn primary reflects the sentiments of its particular constituency, hundreds of thousands of Americans represent just a tiny slice of the broader electorate -- and that slice is not a cross section but a concentration of like-minded progressives. For example, 800,000 of Moveon's members joined the group during the its campaign against the Iraq war, and, as might be expected, the two most visible antiwar candidates came out on top in the primary.

"Among people who are in the Internet elite and who are very liberal and who knew about the initiative in the first place, it probably means something, but in the big scheme of things I don't think it means very much at all, and I voted for Dean," says Larry Elin, an assistant professor of public communications at Syracuse University who coauthored last year's "Click on Democracy: The Internet's Power to Change Political Apathy Into Civic Action."


Yet Elin doesn't believe the primary results are meaningless. "A benefit could be that people like me know that there are others out there," he says. "Here I am in Syracuse, New York. I take pleasure and a certain amount of morale out of the idea that there are 140,000 other [Dean activists] like me scattered all over the country."

Not surprisingly, those who did well in the poll are quick to discuss its importance. Staffers with the underdog Kucinich campaign claim their man should now be treated as a top-tier candidate. "It's the biggest thing that's happened to us," says Kucinich campaign spokesman Jeff Cohen. "This is a major step forward for us. The media pundits have tried to marginalize us, to tell everyone we're second-tier. We proved with the voters, with Democrats, with activists, that we're clearly at the top."

For Kucinich, as well as the other also-rans, there might also be a certain amount of relief in the outcome. Because Dean failed to bring in 50 percent of the votes, he cannot claim the endorsement or the dollars that come with it. Given that the group managed to raise $4.1 million for congressional candidates in 2002, when its membership was only a third of what it is today, the purse, perhaps even more than the popularity among progressives, is the grand prize. Dean could still get MoveOn's backing -- the group will probably hold another, similar primary in September, and will continue holding them until one candidate finally wins a majority.


Republicans, ever eager to dismiss their opponents as radical leftists, seem to be enjoying the idea that liberal insurgents are taking over the Democratic Party. "It seems to be an indication of where the Democrat's primary voters are coming from, meaning more antiwar and more liberal than the party as a whole, and further away from the mainstream of America," says Jim Dyke, press secretary for the National Republican Party.

But Robert Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, says Republicans have no reason to gloat. "Republican strategists, if they are thinking, have cause to be worried," he says. "Dean and Kerry are clearly viable candidates and fresh faces. I've been struck as I travel around the country by the determination of the progressive community to get George W. Bush and his people out of the White House in 2004, even if that requires some compromise with other progressives and other Democrats on priorities."


Some of the MoveOn results bear this out. Large majorities of the MoveOn voters said they'd "enthusiastically" support Dean, Kucinich or Kerry in the 2004 election. More than half said the same of Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who won a paltry 2.44 percent of the vote, and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who won only 3.19 percent. Forty-two percent even said they'd enthusiastically support Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the only candidate who declined to answer the candidate survey created by MoveOn members, and who finished second-to-last, just ahead of Sharpton.

"I don't think it's terribly important that Dean came out first, Kucinich second and Kerry third," says Reich. "I sense a determination among liberals and progressives to win and to rally behind whoever emerges as the primary candidate."

Right now, they're hoping that candidate will be Dean.

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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