As revolutions go, this one began with remarkably little fanfare.
Last Thursday MoveOn.org sent out an e-mail to its members -- all 1.4 million of them -- asking if they'd like to take part in an online Democratic presidential primary later this month. Candidates would answer questions that MoveOn put to them, and if one of them managed to pull a majority of the members' votes, the organization would endorse him.
This is no straw poll: MoveOn does real politics. Founded by some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as a way for liberals and others to electronically register their rage at the impeachment lunacy of 1998, MoveOn has already become a force in American politics. It has coordinated its members to lobby Congress on a host of issues, was a center of opposition to the Iraqi war, and has proved itself as a source of grass-roots campaign contributions ($4.1 million in 2002) to progressive candidates.
Last fall MoveOn made a special pitch to its members to help out Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, then embroiled in a tight reelection contest.
Within a couple of days Wellstone's campaign had an unexpected windfall of more than $600,000 in hard-money contributions. "Now our membership is nearly three times as big as it was then," MoveOn President Wes Boyd notes. (Membership skyrocketed during the run-up to the war.)
In last Thursday's e-mail, MoveOn stated that one reason it wanted to try for an endorsement now was to help its endorsee, should one emerge, rake in some megabucks before the June 30 contribution reporting deadline. It also mentioned that preliminary polling of its members showed that Howard Dean, John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich had the lion's share of early support.
The candidate with the most backing from MoveOn members (though by no means necessarily a majority) is Dean. Not surprisingly, winning this primary has emerged as the Dean campaign's chief focus in the next several weeks. The former Vermont governor has clawed his way into the first tier of Democratic candidates in part through his campaign's unparalleled success in waging a candidacy online. In its last financial statement, the campaign reported $750,000 in online contributions; campaign manager Joe Trippi says that figure now totals roughly $1.25 million.
The campaign already claims 33,000 online Dean supporters who came together through MeetUp.com, a Web site that enables people of like interests to, well, meet up. Trippi is urging his MeetUppers to join the MoveOners but acknowledges that 33,000 new members would just be a drop in MoveOn's bucket.
Both Trippi and the MoveOn leaders think that winning 50 percent support this early in the process will be an arduous task. The thing about an online election, however, is that it's no big deal to hold another one 30 or 60 days later -- a process to which MoveOn seems committed until an endorsement emerges. Still, Dean's legions are filled with highly educated, Internet-savvy young people, and that's a pretty good description of MoveOn's members as well.
How much money such an endorsement would be worth to its recipient is one of the hottest topics in liberal America today. MoveOn's staff offers only the most cautious projections, but political operatives sound awestruck as they contemplate what the numbers could be. "If Dean has their support and wins Iowa," says one longtime liberal strategist who's no Dean partisan, "what people don't realize is that MoveOn could get him $30 million in the next two days."
This is a topic to which Trippi has given a lot of thought. A "mature Internet," he says, could be the link that earlier insurgent candidates missed. "If Gary Hart had had the Internet in 1984, you have to wonder if Mondale would have won the nomination," says Trippi, who worked for Mondale that year. "Hart had no way to raise the money to go national after he won New Hampshire and had to compete immediately in a nationwide Super Tuesday." With the added technology, the Eugene McCarthys and John McCains of this world might well have gone farther.
And so, two pre-primary primaries loom large this summer: MoveOn's, in which passionate young voters may reward a seemingly passionate candidate such as Dean, and the AFL-CIO's, in which pragmatic labor leaders may give the nod to a more conventionally pragmatic candidate such as Dick Gephardt.
There is no Vietnam War dividing these two groups into irretrievably opposed camps -- indeed, many labor leaders I've spoken with are quite enthused by MoveOn's emergence -- but the potential for a rift remains.
Zack Exley, MoveOn's organizing director, says that the advantages of MoveOn's move into presidential primaries clearly outweigh the downside.
"We're trying to allow the voices of ordinary voters, the 1.4 million MoveOn members, to chime in at this crucial early stage in the process, when so much is being determined by high-dollar donors, pollsters, pundits and political elites," he says. In a world where money talks, MoveOn is handing the Democrats' liberal base a large megaphone.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.
This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.