Let the People Speak Early

MoveOn.org PAC, the progressive online political organization, has turned the political system on its head by rapidly launching an online grassroots political primary long before the political establishment has weighed in on the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

When MoveOn surveyed its members, 96.3 percent of the 186,000 respondents said they were eager to jump into the process early.

The 1.4 million MoveOn members and new joiners are eligible to vote for one candidate from the field of nine in the primary scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday. MoveOn announced that the top tier of contenders, according to a straw poll of its members, are Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and John Kerry. In response to members' interest in the three, MoveOn is giving them an assist with a special focus email.

Arguing that "the real choices in the presidential sweepstakes are made long before the real primaries," MoveOn hopes to give insurgent candidacies like Kucinich and Dean a chance to be competitive with the more established, well-funded and media anointed candidacies of John Kerry and John Edwards.

"Pundits, pollsters and big donors shouldn't be the only voices that count at this early and important stage of the process," said MoveOn founder Wes Boyd.

According to MoveOn PAC ground rules, the winner of the MoveOn endorsement needs at least 50 percent of the voters plus one, which would represent what Boyd calls "serious momentum" for one candidate.

MoveOn membership currently numbers 1.4 million. It's not hard to imagine their numbers increasing rapidly as the presidential campaigns hustle their supporters to sign up and make their vote count in this first primary test. Already, emails are flying around the web urging those who are not MoveOn members to register at www.moveon.org. Each current member and new registrant will receive a unique one-person/one-voter link prior to the voting, which takes place June 24 at 12am to June 25 at 11:59pm (EST). MoveOn members will also be encouraged to make donations to their favorite candidates, reminding people that at this early stage campaign contributions are vital to keep a candidate competitive.

It's likely that no single candidate will be able to reap the necessary 50 percent on this first round. Boyd says MoveOn is prepared to hold more votes as the process evolves and members get to know the candidates better. In the event a candidate is chosen next week, MoveOn will execute an urgent fundraising appeal in time for the June 30 quarterly Federal Election Commission filing date.

Helping voters make their decisions is information gleaned from questionnaires distributed to the candidates by MoveOn. Among the seven questions, candidates were asked whether they would seek to revoke the PATRIOT Act; where they stand on crucial environmental issues; and their opinions on other controversial Bush Administration policies, flushing out candidates' positions.

Pundits like Harold Myerson of the American Prospect see Howard Dean as potentially benefiting most from the MoveOn primary process. The web-savvy Dean has raised more than $1 million online, using MeetUp.com to bring supporters together across the country.

Yet Dennis Kucinich should also do well, buoyed by what many are calling the most inspiring political speech heard in years, delivered to more than 1,000 cheering activists at the recent Take Back America conference in Washington DC. By the same token the Kerry campaign will not be happy if Vermont neighbor Dean runs away with MoveOn. And if scattered rumors of big union support for Dick Gephardt are true, the fairly sophisticated email apparatus of the AFL-CIO could be quickly mobilized to influence the MoveOn process.

Part of the genius of this early kickoff is its capacity to reach out to and engage the American people in a kind of national primary. This is in stark contrast to the current focus on fundraising and the early beauty contests for the media; not to mention the early primary contests in New Hampshire and Iowa, where the virtually all-white population hardly represents the country as a whole.

And, says Boyd, there's another compelling reason for jumping in early: "We are giving these campaigns a real reason to develop grassroots networks while they are working for our endorsement." Of course, the fact that MoveOn membership and fundraising clout is likely to grow as their primary heats up has not been lost on the MoveOn team.

MoveOn's organizational speed is stunning. In a matter of a few days, the primary has moved from conception to implementation, employing sophisticated yet straightforward technology. To help maintain the trust of its loyal members, MoveOn has hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to do "exit polls" of voters as extra insurance that the email voting process has integrity. Boyd adds, "There has never been a vote like this, and we will very seriously guard its legitimacy. We are confident the numbers will be totally accurate."

The MoveOn effort is being taken seriously by the Democratic establishment, which is well aware that the organization has the ability to raise big bucks for candidates. At less than half its current size, MoveOn has already raised $4.1 million. Some political observers suggest, as Myerson wrote in the Washington Post, that MoveOn could produce as much as $30 million for an endorsed candidate who gathered momentum in an early primary.

Even though MoveOn is jumping into the primary dynamic, it's fundamentally motivated by the fact that "George W. Bush and some radical Republicans have stolen our country." The candidate engagement process is the beginning of something big: a web-enabled nationwide network to defeat Bush. MoveOn remains committed to its mantra of regime change at home: "No matter who we individually support during the primaries, we [will] keep working to defeat Bush once the eventual Democratic nominee is chosen."

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.

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