Micah L. Sifry

The Rise of Open-Source Politics

Whether you're a Democrat in mourning or a Republican in glee, the results from election day should not obscure an important shift in America's civic life. New tools and practices born on the internet have reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that used to be closed to them. It may seem like cold comfort for Kerry supporters now, but the truth is that voters don't have to rely on elected or self-appointed leaders to chart the way forward anymore. The era of top-down politics – where campaigns, institutions and journalism were cloistered communities powered by hard-to-amass capital – is over. Something wilder, more engaging and infinitely more satisfying to individual participants is arising alongside the old order.

One moment when this new power began to be collectively understood by grassroots activists was on April 23, 2003. It was 4:31 p.m. (EST) in cyberspace when Mathew Gross, then toiling in obscurity on Howard Dean's presidential campaign, posted the following missive on the message board of SmirkingChimp.com, a little-known but heavily trafficked forum for anti-Bush sentiment:

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Running Clean

The day after Election Day, the good people at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the nonpartisan group that is the pre-eminent source of data and analysis on who gives money to whom in politics, put out a press release with an apt title: "2004 Election Outcome: Money Wins."

Indeed, in the battle for Congress, the candidate with the largest wallet won 95 percent of all House races and 91 percent of all Senate races. For the House, where partisan gerrymandering has made it more likely for a member of Congress to leave office in a hearse than due to a lost election, this rate of impregnability was the same as in 2002. Almost one out of three House races were financially uncompetitive – that is, winners faced challengers who spent less than $5,000. For the Senate, 2004 also marked a real decline in competitiveness, as just 76 percent of all Senate races were won by the biggest spender in 2002. Top spenders also won open seat races nearly nine times out of 10, reported CRP.

But while overall campaign spending rose 30 percent in 2004, topping $4 billion – led by two presidential candidates who raised more than half a billion in private contributions – something quite different took place in the states that have enacted Clean Money/Clean Elections systems: More candidates than ever are running for office on a limited budget of full public financing. And the system is spreading.

Maine, Arizona Lead The Way

In Maine, a whopping 83 percent of the state Senate (29 out of 35) and 77 percent of the House (116 out of 151) will be made up of legislators who ran clean. This is an increase from 2002, when 77 percent of the Senate and 55 percent of the House was made up of legislators who participated in Clean Elections. Both major parties are heavily represented in this group: among Democrats, 15 incoming senators and 70 incoming House members ran clean; among Republicans, 14 incoming senators, and 42 incoming House members ran clean. It is now fair to say that in Maine, at least, the political norm is for candidates to refuse private contributions and instead rely solely on equal grants of public funds, which they qualify for by collecting a large number of $5 contributions at the beginning of their races.

In Arizona, a total of 46 candidates for the state legislature and corporation commission were elected running clean. All four of the winning candidates for corporation commission participated in Clean Elections. In addition, 58 percent of the members of the Arizona state house (35 of 60) and 23 percent of the state senate (seven of 30) ran clean. In both cases, this is an increase from 2002, when the House was 45 percent clean and the Senate 17 percent clean.

Clean Elections winners in Arizona were both Republicans and Democrats. All four winning corporations commissioners are Republicans, as are three incoming senators and 21 incoming House members. Among Democrats, four incoming senators and 14 incoming House members ran clean.

Both states are reporting other salutary effects. According to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the number of contested primaries in 2004 reached 39, up from 31 in 2002 and 25 in 2000. This is quite significant, since thanks to gerrymandering party primaries are often the most important site for expanding voter choice. All but two of those contested primaries included at least one Clean Elections candidate. The overall number of candidates in Maine's primaries was up 12 percent, giving voters many more choices.

In Arizona, the Clean Elections system not only has increased the diversity of the candidate pool, it has expanded public participation in the funding process itself. An analysis done by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute found that the pool of small donors who gave $5 qualifying contributions to gubernatorial candidates running in 2002 was far more diverse geographically, economically and ethnically than was the case for candidates relying on private contributions for their campaigns.

It will be a while before the final totals for spending on Maine and Arizona's elections are in, but if 2002 is any indication, it is likely that widespread reliance on the Clean Elections systems in both states will again show a tempering in overall campaign costs and a narrowing of the financial gap between challengers and incumbents.

More States Follow

The success of public financing in Maine and Arizona has contributed to the passage of similar systems in more states. This November, North Carolina became the first in the country to offer candidates for top judicial offices (Supreme Court and Court of Appeals) substantial public funding for their races. Two seats on the seven-member Supreme Court and three seats on the 15-member Court of Appeals were up for election. Both Supreme Court races and two of the three Court of Appeals seats were won by candidates who ran with public financing. In all, 12 of the 16 candidates running for the five seats participated in the public financing program.

Next November, New Jersey will start its experiment with Clean Elections, offering candidates in two competitive legislative districts the option of full public funding. And in 2006, candidates for the Public Regulation Commission in New Mexico, a powerful statewide body that oversees corporations, will be able to obtain full public funding for their races.

While the prospects for passing more reforms of the federal campaign system look slender right now, opportunities abound in the states. That's in part due to the hard work of local activists, aided by the inevitable scandals that arise under "pay-to-play" politics. For example, in Connecticut, the shakeup created by the resignation of scandal-plagued Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, who vetoed a Clean Elections bill a few years ago, has propelled more sympathetic advocates to leadership positions in the Connecticut House and Senate. And Republican Gov. Jodi Rell has demonstrated an openness to work with reformers as the state examines campaign finance and ethics-reform issues.

And last year in Hawaii, both chambers of the legislature voted in favor of public financing of elections – after three prior sessions when reform advocates saw legislation pass the House only to fail in the Senate. This time, the legislation stalled in the Senate/House committee and the bill never reached the governor's desk.  However, advocates laid critical groundwork, unearthed concerns and formed new relationships that greatly increase the chance of success in the next session.

It takes time and steady organizing efforts to enact Clean Elections-style reform, and defenders of the status quo – many of whom profit greatly from it – are scarcely indifferent to this challenge to their power. But while the national headlines may seem discouraging, it's important to remember this essential fact about change in America – it always bubbles up from below.

The Tech Tidal Wave Hits Politics

Sometime today, tonight or tomorrow, a piece of software or a blog or perhaps a high-tech device like a camera phone or a text message that goes viral is going to make a difference in this oh-so-close election, and those of us in the political, technology and journalism worlds are going to rush to make a big deal of it. And rightfully so.

When Andrew Shapiro called Greg Simon, Al Gore's deputy chief of staff, late on the night of Election 2000, and fed him the numbers that he was reading off of the Florida Secretary of State's Web site – which differed dramatically from the networks' premature decision to declare the state for Bush – he stopped the Bush victory train in its tracks. Simon was with Gore as the vice president waited under the stage at the Nashville War Memorial where he was to make his concession speech, but as Shapiro stayed on the line with him and kept hitting the "refresh" button on his browser, it became clear to all that no concession was in order. (Other reports credit field captain Michael Whouley, faced with jammed cell phone lines, with paging Gore chief of staff Michael Feldman in the Gore motorcade, who patched in campaign chairman William Daley, to tell him the race was too tight in Florida.)

As Dan Gillmor writes in his valuable new book, "We the Media," "If someone knows something in one place, everyone who cares about that something will know it soon enough." All the new tools at our disposal, and the loosely joined networks of like-minded people that they have empowered, insure that we will know, faster than ever before, a lot more than we ever knew about the election of 2000.

But before we forget the forest amidst all these interesting new trees, I'd like to make a different claim for the impact of technology on this election. The biggest change is not the speed at which we will know the facts, or the rumors, of what is taking place. Nor is it, as the bloggers tapped by the New York Times to opinionate on the most important event of the election, the unraveling of the Fourth Estate. While I agree heartily with John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson of Powerline, who write "never again will the mainstream news media be able to dictate the flow of information to the American people," the big story isn't just the way bloggers are talking back to the powerful and to each other.

In my humble opinion, the big change is in how technology is energizing participation in electoral politics. As a good friend of mine who is a Kerry supporter said to me last night, "Everybody I know is doing something on Election Day. There's literally no one I know who isn't. My mother is making calls. My father-in-law is driving people to the polls. I'm going to Philadelphia."

This isn't a partisan thing, by the way. The Bush campaign said it would deploying 1.6 million volunteers on November. If true, that's more than one percent of the likely number of people who will vote, a truly impressive accomplishment.

Clearly, all this is happening because it's a very close election and whatever your views, the stakes seem high. A lot of people are feeling motivated to act. That's the essential human ingredient, which some technologists forget in their zeal to create fancy new tools for activists and campaigns.

But here's the key: Web-based tools are making it vastly easier to participate in meaningful political action, and they are also enhancing the meaning of small actions in ways that create a virtuous cycle of greater activity. Most of the time, most of us shy away from politics because in its traditional form it's too top-down, too time-consuming, too-money-drenched, too elitist and too manipulative. The average American has sadly come to relate to politics as a necessary evil, something to be done as little as possible, rather than as a necessary and good way of addressing problems that we face as a society and nation.

But the new civic software, coupled with an intense feeling that this election matters, is changing that view for many, many of us.

The best example I can give is the rise of the distributed or virtual phone bank. For the last weeks of the campaign, anyone who wanted to help Kerry or the Democrats get out the vote today has been able to log onto any of several Web sites like Votercall.org, register, and within seconds get a list of likely Kerry voters, or undecided voters, or newly registered voters in key states, along with their phone numbers and a suggested script for the call. A few days ago, the much more top-down Bush campaign created its own virtual phonebank, with the same approach. (Was that a sign of weakness, or strength? Hopefully we'll be able to get the metrics from both sides after the dust settles.)

Andrew Shapiro was one of the untold number of volunteers in this hidden, but crucial, stage of the election. "I sat here last night at my desk in New York making calls into swing states, using the Kerry volunteer site," he told me. "It was incredibly easy and satisfying, even if four out of the five calls were just messages to answering machines." Shapiro laughed at the intricacy of the operation, "I was a volunteer calling other volunteers to ask them to volunteer."

But what impressed Shapiro, the author of the prescient book "The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know" (Public Affairs, 1999), is how, yet again, people have found a way to use the Internet to amplify a very simple and normal action in powerful ways. "This reminds me of what was smart about Meetup," he says, "in that they just made it easy to find like-minded people in your neighborhood." The virtual phone banks have made it easy for someone sitting at home to reach other would-be voters, or – as some of my more motivated friends and neighbors have done – to turn themselves into a virtual precinct captain and divvy out lists of phone numbers to other, perhaps less tech-savvy but equally motivated acquaintances.

Historians may want to credit the Howard Dean campaign for planting this particular seed. If memory serves, the first emergence of a distributed virtual phone bank occurred this winter, after Dean crashed in Iowa and New Hampshire and his campaign flopped. A devoted group of his supporters organized their own efforts to generate phone calls to undecided voters in Wisconsin, the site of Dean's last stand. Obviously, it was too late – but the idea lived on.

This new kind of citizen engagement is working not only because it's easy, but also because it's about people talking to people (the Meetup model again) and because it solves the dilemma of collective action. By ourselves, making 50 or 100 calls into swing states would seem futile. But if you can see hundreds, or thousands, of others doing the same thing, it's no longer a meaningless drop in the bucket. It's a tidal wave.

We'll soon know how big that wave is, and who it's going to carry to victory.

The Life of the Party

On Monday, the same evening that the eminences grises of the Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, addressed the party faithful at the Fleet Center, a greasier process was also underway, as corporate donors waited waiting eagerly for delegates to stream out of the Fleet Center to a long-list of late night parties.

Some couldn't even wait for the real partying to begin. One friend of ours managed to get into an exclusive party at the top of the Prudential Center, where long before Clinton was done speaking, the doors were already open on the scenic 50th floor. Heaps of fresh seafood, fine French pastries and overflowing platters of other delicacies, along with troops of performers, greeted the California congressional delegation. The event was paid for by Fleishman-Hilliard, a national PR firm with offices all over the country. Other sponsors included Intel, Oracle, Ebay, SBC, Genentech and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. On the way out, attendees received a T-shirt with a list of all the events corporate sponsors.

At the same time, there were receptions for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), and a Microsoft bash for homestate Sen. Patty Murray. The Roxy Night Club, scene of a soiree for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats the night before, was now the site for a party for Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN), where, reported the National Journal, Justin Timberlake might or might not be performing. Champagne and cigars were the attraction at a small gathering for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Picking up the tab for these events are a long list of corporate donors. The Roxy Blue Dog event Sunday night, a little $600,000 shindig, was paid for by some 30, including Altria (formerly known as Phillip Morris), Comcast (the cable giant), ConocoPhillips (the oil conglomerate), and Microsoft. Verizon and Lockheed Martin sprang for an affair honoring the Congressional Black Caucus, and Novartis for a quiet cocktail hour honoring the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Bell South, the Edison Electric Institute, and some dozen other companies are hosting festivities for Sen. John B. Breaux (D-LA), who is fabled to have quipped years ago that his vote wasn't for sale, but it was for rent.

In the wake of the new ban on soft money enacted as part of McCain-Feingold, which prevents the national political parties from accepting unlimited contributions from special interests, corporate cash has instead been pouring into the coffers of the nonprofit host committees for the Democratic and Republican conventions. Together, the two committees are expected to raise more than $100 million from private sources – more than 12 times as much as they raised in 1992. Here as in the presidential fundraising race, the Republicans are in the lead, expecting to raise $63.6 million to the Democrats' $39 million. And that's not even counting millions more been spent on hundreds of private parties.

What's more, many of these donors are showing bipartisanship, and sponsoring events in Boston as well as at the GOP convention in New York. Among the double donors are big givers to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, including IBM, AT&T, Coca-Cola Company, Microsoft, Pfizer, Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Altria Group.

Why do these donors give? A Novartis public affairs VP attending the cocktail hour explained that the company was giving $500,000 apiece to the Democratic and Republican host committees for the conventions because "We're very emmeshed in both communities, New York and Boston." Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), whom we bumped into at the Hamer event, was a bit more blunt. Asked why PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Bell South and Motorola were each throwing him an event this week. "It's a tradition that leaders of Congress are honored by certain groups," he said smoothly. "To the extent they sponsor a party, they get a chance to talk to you."

What happens at these parties isn't so much the direct exchange of cash for favors as something more subtle and invidious: the reinforcement of a common worldview. That's because ordinary people aren't invited to these events; nor could they afford to pay-to-play. So the politicians in the room don't hear about the high cost of health insurance or how hard it is to find affordable housing on the minimum wage. To do that, they'd have to talk to the waiters, busboys and janitors who clean up after the revelers leave at 2:00 a.m. Instead, fatcats and lobbyists touch their arms and remind them about that capital gains tax they're hoping to reduce, or that tax subsidy they're hoping to protect for their business client. As Robert Reich, Clinton's Labor Secretary once wrote, "Access to the network of the wealthy does not buy a politician's mind, instead it nibbles constantly, sweetly, at his ear."

When the parties are over, these donors come knocking, emailing, faxing, and phoning, asking for paybacks on their investments. All too often, they receive them. The utility industry's Edison Electric Institute, the sponsor of at least nine events here in Boston, successfully lobbied the Cheney Energy Task Force to include a number of items from its legislative wish list in the Bush Administration's energy plan, including new EPA regulations essentially exempting coal-burning utilities from installing pollution control devices when making upgrades. Not knowing who will be in the White House in 2005, Edison is here in Boston to cover its bets.

Even those being feted acknowledge the problem. The Congressional Black Caucus event honored the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In 1964, she bravely led a delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, where they challenged the seating of an all-white slate from the state's segregationist Democrats. Far from the glare of media attention, which has been all over the celebrities attending this week's events, fourteen surviving members of the MFDP were toasted by the CBC. The Rev. Ed King, one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats being honored, seemed a bit nonplussed by its corporate sponsorship. "I wish citizens were funding politics, not corporations," he said. We couldn't agree more.

Bush League Fundraising

It's payback time in Bushland. As June comes to an end, President Bush and Vice President Cheney are going to the people they've enriched over the last two-and-a-half years and who they've promised to fight to enrich even further, and asking them to help build the most obscenely porcine campaign war-chest in almost all of American political history.

Who are these happy backers of the GOP?

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What Went Wrong for Ralph?

Two-point-seven percent.

What happened? Why didn't Ralph Nader get the five percent that polls suggested lay in reach, as late as the weekend before the election? And regardless of the final vote, what did his campaign accomplish? Where did it fall short?

Based on comprehensive interviews with Nader and much of his core campaign staff, along with an array of Green activists and others who intersected with the campaign over the last year, some early conclusions can be drawn.

First, what the Nader campaign accomplished, on its own terms: "We got on 44 state ballots [including Washington, D.C.], raised almost $8 million, mobilized 150,000 volunteers, started 500 local Green groups and 900 campus chapters, and brought in one million new voters," said Theresa Amato, Nader's campaign manager. "Ralph raised his agenda for a working democracy in fifty states, and we were the only campaign talking about issues like the death penalty, fair trade, campaign finance reform, universal health care, and media concentration. We trained a new generation of activists to follow through on the Seattle movement, gave great visibility to the Green Party and highlighted some of its local candidates. And we raised awareness of the corrupt Commission on Presidential Debates, filed two lawsuits against it, and also brought nine lawsuits seeking to open up state ballot access."

It's an honorable list. Nader ran a serious campaign that carried forward the torch of reform lit earlier in the year by Republican John McCain, adding his own distinct anti-corporate critique and challenging many Americans to consider their stake in fostering a "deep democracy."

While many Democrats and their liberal interest group allies are consumed with vitriol for Nader's renegade campaign, a few calmer heads have recognized his impact on the election and the future. After all, he did get more than 5 percent of the vote in 11 states (and D.C.) and more than 4 percent in 7 others -- giving him the potential to be a swing vote in perhaps 100 Congressional districts.

"We are witnessing the birth pangs of a reform movement in America intent on ending the corruption of our democratic system by money," former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich observed in the current issue of the American Prospect, adding that "this is the hour for reform, not recrimination."

From the right, historian Kevin Phillips noted in the Los Angeles Times that the combined vote for Al Gore and Ralph Nader was 52 percent, the highest since LBJ's 1964 landslide. "Nader and his voters may now be what George C. Wallace was after in 1968: a pivotal force to be courted," wrote Phillips.

But while the first draft of history is still being written, it's worth taking a close look at the course of Nader's campaign. It may be that nothing could have been done differently or that external conditions beyond the campaign's control mattered more than anything else. Certainly, no one could have predicted that Patrick Buchanan would put in such a weak performance -- especially after polls last year showed him drawing into the low double-digits as a third-party candidate. (Though, ironically, it appears that Buchanan "cost" Bush more states -- Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- than Nader did Gore, assuming for the sake of argument that every one of their voters would have gone to the major party candidate.)

Had there been a genuine four-way race, with a four-way debate, Nader might have avoided the ugly endgame with the Democrats which dominated his campaign's final weeks. And, certainly, no one thought the race between Gore and Bush would be so close -- another factor that ultimately depressed Nader's vote totals.

"The most disappointing thing to me," Nader said during an hour-long conversation just before Thanksgiving, "was the way the polls shrank. They gave every indication to me of holding, going into the last weekend before election day, even surging in some places." He sighed. "There's this psychology among voters not to stray from the major parties."

Nader blamed that mindset for his disappointing totals, along with the fact that the so-called Molly Ivins Rule -- whereby fence-sitters in "safe states" were urged to support the Green candidate -- was mostly a failure.

"People don't think about the electoral college at all," he complained. (Well, that was then!) Obviously, what Nader and many other people misjudged was the reluctance of many liberals to abandon the Democratic party, and the effectiveness of the Gore campaign's scare tactics in the final weeks of the election.

Still, a full postmortem requires an honest look at the mistakes the Nader campaign made on its own, ranging from its late start, weak vice-presidential candidate and problems created by the Greens, as well as the stumbles of an inexperienced staff that didn't maximize the campaign's message. Finally, it's worth questioning whether Nader was too "left" or too "Green" a candidate to reach most voters -- a topic of great importance if he and the Greens are to prosper in the future.

Last Into the Pool

The first error, and the biggest, was starting so late. While Nader had told a few people (off the record) as early as June of last year that he would run, he didn't begin hiring a campaign manager until early 2000, and his official announcement wasn't until February 21st. The result was a cascading series of blown deadlines and late starts on everything from ballot access to fundraising, compounded by Nader's decision to spend most of the first three months of his campaign -- from mid-March to mid-June -- flying around the country keeping his promise to campaign in all fifty states.

It wasn't until late July that the funds really started pouring in, enabling Amato to triple the staff to over 100 by the end of August, including hiring field coordinators in many states.

It was, in effect, as if the Nader campaign didn't really get out of first gear until Labor Day. Asked in mid-October about what he would have done differently, Nader admits he should have started earlier, but isn't so sure how much better things could have been.

"If we had started in November, it would have been better, but I'm not sure the intensity could have been kept up with some people," he said, adding that it would have been hard to get out the campaign's radical message so early in the political season -- especially during the primaries, when many of the mainstream candidates were touting their reformer credentials. "Too many people were giving (campaign donations) to (Bill) Bradley and McCain. That opened up substantially after March."

The consensus of Nader's inner circle is different. "Tactically, we were at a disadvantage starting late," Amato concedes.

A Part-time VP

A second internal problem was the fact that the campaign had, essentially, a part-time vice-presidential candidate in longtime environmental justice activist Winona LaDuke, who had her third child early this year. Her presence on the ticket was obviously reassuring to hardcore Greens concerned Nader would neglect their broader platform in his efforts to focus on corporate power and democracy issues. But while Nader in fact stood pretty solidly with the Green platform throughout the campaign, LaDuke was nowhere near as active on the campaign trail as the head of the ticket. Her absence sometimes angered and confused women who came to rallies expecting to see her speak.

Picture the alternative of someone like African-American scholar and Nader-backer Cornel West stepping in to fill her shoes, potentially broadening the Greens' appeal to more people of color. West came out for Nader in August, after having stumped actively for Democrat Bill Bradley. The day before Election Day, after he and Nader spoke at Al Sharpton's headquarters in New York City, I asked him if he could imagine running for the vice president with Nader. Laughing heartily, West said "Now that's something I could wrap my mind around, my brother!"

Amato doesn't deny that LaDuke had a part-time role. But, she says, "She had done more than she had committed to Ralph to do. And she did have other commitments."

The Greens: A Blessing or a Curse?

Some of the campaign's day-to-day difficulties flowed from its relationship to the Greens, who brought their own unique combination of enthusiasm and amateurism to the effort. One close Nader adviser rattled off a quick list of issues: "First, the timing and location of the convention [in Denver in June] screwed the campaign out of plenty of matching funds [which are only available until a party nominates its presidential candidate]. We could have held it in September. And why not hold it in New York or California, where more people would have attended?

"Second, in lots of places there was little focus on the presidential campaign, with Greens more interested in local issues like animal rights or power lines. Third, the 'Super Rallies' were a success despite the Greens. We'd give them a bunch of tickets to sell and they'd stick them on the side of the table. In many places, they haven't made the transition from being a debating society to being a political party.

"Fourth," the advisor noted, "I don't know who put out that statement on the Middle East and what they thought they were doing." Indeed, the Association of State Green Parties issued a release October 24th endorsing a United Nations resolution condemning Israel's handling of the Palestinian protests and calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel until the country agrees to withdraw from the occupied territories and recognize the Palestinians' right of return. The statement went beyond Nader's own position on the conflict -- he is against any immediate aid cutoff, and has only talked about phasing down economic aid to the country, citing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support for the notion.

Needless to say, the ASGP's statement was quickly added to anti-Nader propaganda being circulated by Jewish Democrats -- including vicious e-mails that not only gratuitously pointed out Nader's Lebanese heritage but also claimed his father had refused to serve Jews in his Winsted, Connecticut restaurant. The result? According to the Voter News Service exit poll, Nader only received one percent of the vote of a very liberal minority that had earlier disproportionately supported his candidacy.

Then there was the inexperience of the campaign staff, which showed in every department. Some field staff were hired haphazardly, the campaign's Web site languished for months and campaign manager Amato was more of an administrator than a strategist.

These sorts of problems crop up in all kinds of seat-of-their-pants campaigns, and while painful, they don't have to be fatal. But indecisive leadership and sloppy work in Nader's headquarters led the candidate to unleash his legendary aptitude for micromanaging. After some press releases were sent out with typos, for example, Nader insisted on personally approving every outgoing communication -- dramatically slowing reporters' ability to get timely responses from the campaign.

Media Confusion

The team's flaws were most noticeable when it came to getting the campaign's message out. There's no question the mainstream media was disdainful of the Nader campaign until the end. With a few exceptions -- USA Today, the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, the Hartford Courant, and ABC News -- Nader was nothing more than an occasional feature story. The New York Times set the tone with its sneering editorials and skimpy news coverage. But with some creative campaigning, Nader might have been able to break-through this media brownout.

Despite pressure from several close supporters and campaign advisers, however, Nader refused to elbow his way into front page-hogging sagas like the Elian Gonzalez war or Texas' controversial execution of Gary Graham -- even though in both cases he had an excellent opportunity to distinguish his stance on the issues from those of Bush and Gore. For Nader, these stories were distractions from his core message about corporate power and its stranglehold on American life.

Since he couldn't count on the automatic daily coverage that is a perk of being a major party candidate, Nader needed to continually find targets that could both illustrate his message -- we need to save democracy from corporate power -- while also affecting the larger Gore-Bush horse race upon which nearly all of the media coverage was focused. He hit the occasional bulls-eye, such as a trip to East Liverpool, Ohio, where for eight years protesters have ripped Al Gore's broken promise to prevent the opening of an incinerator cheek-by-jowl with a public school. But most of the time Nader's message was more diffuse and less "newsworthy."

Nader also never really succeeded in crafting a more positive message from his relentless critique of the status quo. While he listened to those who urged him to speak more to the "joy" in his avowed "politics of joy and justice," he frequently fell back into a well-worn groove of excoriating the major parties -- particularly the Democrats, for betraying the party's ideals.

Nader was also distracted by personal attacks -- the New York Times in particular got under his skin -- which sometimes blurred his focus, as did his tendency to speak too long, testing the patience of his most adoring crowds. His flip remark that Roe v. Wade would simply 'revert to the states' if overturned by a Bush-stacked Supreme Court didn't help either, in dispelling the fears of many liberals. Anti-Nader Gore-ites like Gloria Steinem had a field day with it.

Strong Ad Campaign Never Happened

All of these stumbles still don't fully explain why Nader was not better prepared for the inevitable tendency of third-party leaners to melt way on election day. In this regard, the campaign made a strategic mistake when it failed to budget and raise enough money for a substantial ad run in the last two weeks before Election Day. "You need a field campaign, absolutely," says Bill Hillsman, the Minnesota ad whiz who produced Nader's TV and radio ads. "But this was a case where we never reached critical mass with TV and radio. Our message never made it out to the independents in the suburbs. It was all focused on college campuses and urban centers."

Nader himself was never thrilled about having to buy TV ads -- in my first conversation with him a year ago about the emerging campaign he refused to commit to even doing broadcast ads, hoping as he was to run the whole thing on a combination of grassroots organizing and free media coverage. And he was unimpressed when his campaign spent $800,000 broadcasting the critically-acclaimed "Priceless" ad (a parody of MasterCard's famous campaign) during the August convention season, pointing out that "our poll numbers went down afterwards."

Others in the campaign argued that those ads -- which drew secondary media attention after a humorless MasterCard sued -- kept Nader on the playing field during the onslaught of convention coverage, and that his numbers went down because Gore began stealing his populist rhetoric, starting with his nomination acceptance speech.

Nader disagreed, even after the election. "The clutter of ads at the end were staggering," he said. "The Democrats spent $8 million in Michigan alone." He prefers to point to places where extensive grassroots campaigning by local Naderites had a big impact. "We got 14 percent in Great Barrington and 33 percent in Sheffield" -- two towns in liberal western Massachusetts -- "where we had two people going neighbor to neighbor for six months."

Most of America is not like western Massachusetts, however, culturally or even geographically. Mass political movements need to be organized, yes, and that takes tens of thousands of individuals doing the hard work of talking to their neighbors. But those people need to be motivated by the sense they are part of something larger than themselves -- a sense an effective national ad campaign might foster. As Hillsman says, "going from zero to five percent is much harder than going from five to fifteen percent." Noting Nader's reluctance to put more money into media, Hillsman concludes "I was never sure about how committed the candidate was to getting the five percent (needed for federal matching funds in '04)."

The lack of paid media may have tilted Nader's itinerary in the final weeks more toward swing states. The campaign had decided that, in aiming for at least 5 percent of the vote, it needed shore up its base in those states where the ticket was already polling above that threshold -- a strategy which meant going into some battleground states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. The campaigners also believed they would drop out of the news if they only went to "safe" states like Texas and New York.

To be sure, Nader did not get into the presidential race hoping he would have a free and easy ride -- i.e., winning five percent of the vote without affecting the Bush-Gore contest. It was clear he wanted to teach the Democrats a lesson by hurting Gore, and the campaign never pushed the "safe" states message as hard as it could have. On the other hand, if all Nader had wanted to do was deny Gore the election, then he simply would have rented a bus and campaigned solely in his strongholds in the Midwest and Northwest, rather than taking multiple trips to New York and California.

In any event, the campaign had only about $200,000 for paid media during the last two weeks, precisely when a host of Gore allies ranging from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL were spending millions on ads directly attacking Nader and suggesting a vote for him would elect Bush. And if there's one rule of thumb in politics today, it's that an attack on television must be answered on television.

Nader did have a good response in the can -- an ad produced by Hillsman depicting kids contemplating their future (a parody of a Monster.com ad) that evoked the campaign's essentially humanistic and uplifting purpose. But Nader worried that the ad would be seen as exploiting children and that as a longtime opponent of commercialism and commercials aimed at kids, he would be attacked as a hypocrite. Precious time was lost as the campaign debated what to do; the ad finally ran here and there, but only in the last four days of the election.

Less than Three

And so he ended up with 2.7 percent. But all of this nitpicking begs a more serious question: Regardless of any fine-tuning that could have been done on the Nader campaign, is it possible he was just headed in the wrong direction? Specifically, should he have run as less the progressive prophet scolding the right-drifting Democratic party and more as the maverick independent, zeroing in on the buy-partisan political establishment? Especially as it became clear that Buchanan was not going to siphon off many right-wing votes from Bush, leaving a leftist Nader in a much more exposed "spoiler" position? Had Ralph mistakenly traded his "civic" armor built over decades for a "green" suit that didn't fit?

Consider that in 1992 when Nader campaigned in the New Hampshire primary, asking voters to write his name in "as a stand-in for 'none-of-the-above,'" he received 2 percent of the Democratic vote AND 2 percent of the Republican vote. This somewhat surprising appeal across party lines was reflected in the large crowds who came to his rallies, ranging from middle-aged men with gun racks on their pick-ups to young professionals bothered by high real estate prices to the familiar ponytailed Birkenstockers. He had recently led a successful populist uprising against Congress' attempt to vote itself a pay raise and his stock was high on talk radio dials across America.

More recently, he continued to make odd-bedfellow alliances on issues ranging from global trade agreements to getting Channel One out of public schools (on which he worked with Phyllis Schlafly). But in the 2000 campaign, Nader came out as a full-blown progressive, taking strong positions on the death penalty, the military budget, health care, gay rights, labor organizing, racial profiling, reparations for slavery, hemp, Palestinian rights -- you name it. And while he focused on a set of issues surrounding corporate power and democracy that could appeal to a independent skeptic, he saddled himself with the mantle of a fledgling social democratic party whose core base is mostly crunchy granola.

"I always framed things as an appeal to traditional values," Nader insisted, when asked if his campaign wasn't too much like 'Noam Chomsky for President.'" "I would define the corporatists as the extremists, pointing out their exploitation of children and commercialization of childhood, for example. I was always careful to appeal to conservatives."

Perhaps. But exit polls show Nader's support came predominantly from the left side of the spectrum; obviously, conservatives weren't hearing him.

Ultimately, there may be a hard lesson here for those of us seeking a way out of the two-party duopoly. Yes, the mythic party of nonvoters outnumbers that of the Democrats and Republicans, and is potentially more radical. But there are also many independent voters who are open to new choices beyond Tweedledom -- and these people vote more regularly than typical 'nonvoters.' Thus it may make more sense to build a third-party campaign as an independent-populist play rooted in the "radical middle" that came out for Ross Perot in 1992 and Jesse Ventura in 1998.

Such a strategy doesn't have to mean jettisoning progressive principles -- indeed most of these speak to the majority of Americans when they are framed as appeals to fairness, justice and democratic empowerment. But it does mean taking very seriously the need to speak to Americans where they are, without expecting them to come all the way over to the progressive side of the box on their own.

Nader's gamble was that his 37 years as a citizen advocate, his convincing fight for the "little guy" and his defense of civic values over corporate values would transform the Greens into a new kind of populist/social-democratic party. Clearly that didn't happen -- or at best, it is only beginning to happen. Instead, in this campaign, Nader became a "green" -- and despite his best efforts that term by itself still doesn't resonate with most Americans.

Micah L. Sifry's book on third parties in American politics will be published next year by Routledge.

Good News for the Campaign Finance Reform Movement

"To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Leave the perception of impropriety unanswered, and the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance."With these ringing words, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives issued a critical decision on Monday that shocked Republican ideologues and warmed the hearts of activists everywhere working for campaign finance reform. The case, Nixon v Shrink Missouri Government PAC, centered on whether Missouri's $1,075 limit on individual contributions to statewide candidates was constitutional. With few exceptions, courts around the country have been throwing out measures with lower contribution limits as infringements on free speech and association, and many reformers had feared that the Supreme Court would agree.Indeed, as the Nixon v Shrink case made its way to the high court, prominent opponents of campaign finance reform, like Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had petitioned the court to overturn Missouri's law. McConnell, the George Wallace of our present system of checkbook politics (picture him standing at the doorway to Congress, proudly declaring, "Legalized Bribery now, Legalized Bribery tomorrow, Legalized Bribery forever!") has argued that the First Amendment protects all forms of political contributions and spending. His brief sought the full repeal of contributions limits or, at the least, recognized that they should be adjusted upwards to take account of lost purchasing power due to inflation.Thus, for the campaign finance reform movement, the Court's 6-3 ruling written by Justice David Souter was doubly sweet to read. Upholding Missouri's contribution limits, the court affirmed what nearly every American believes: that big money plays a pernicious role in our politics and that we have a compelling interest to reduce corruption, including the appearance of corruption that results when candidates are dependent on large private contributions to pay for their campaigns.In an indirect but clear rebuke to McConnell and his ilk, Souter added: "The dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index." Indeed, his opinion makes clear that states may experiment with lower limits on contributions as long as they don't choke off candidates' ability to amass the resources they need to run effective campaigns.It still remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will revisit the core jurisprudence underlying this week's decision, by taking a case directly challenging its 1976 Buckley v Valeo ruling. In Buckley, the court held that any limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional infringements on free speech, while upholding $1,000 limits for campaign contributions and public financing for presidential campaigns. Justice Souter's opinion relied heavily on the Buckley framework, but legal activists pushing several cases aimed at forcing the question were heartened by signs from several other justices that they were ready to reconsider Buckley. In the meantime, the Nixon ruling is good news for the growing movement for Clean Money-style reform that is taking root around the country. Starting with Maine in 1996, a total of four states have enacted Clean Money systems for state elections, whereby candidates who voluntarily agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits can get full public campaign financing. This reform, unlike more incremental measures currently before Congress, breaks candidates' dependence on private contributions altogether. By affirming that states may also restrain the size of contributions to privately-financed candidates, the Court's decision strengthens the chances that candidates will choose to opt into Clean Money systems, secure in the knowledge that they will get sufficient funding to run a competitive race and not be completely outspent by fatcat-financed rivals.This is particularly helpful to folks in Maine and Arizona, whose new Clean Money systems are in effect for state elections this November. In two rulings in the past three months, a federal judge has upheld all provisions of Maine's new law, including full public financing for candidates who agree to raise no private money. The other ruling reduced contribution limits to $250 for candidates seeking statewide office who want to continue raising private money. While both of those decisions are still being appealed, the Nixon ruling suggests a clear path leading to Clean Money's eventual affirmation by the Supreme Court. For people everywhere who are sick of how money-drenched our political system has become, this is very good news indeed.Micah L. Sifry is senior analyst with Public Campaign. For more information on Public Campaign, go to www.publicampaign.org or call 1-888-293-5755.

When Politicians Lie

Whether it's to reconcile the conflicts between expectations and reality, or to justify the unjustifiable, all politicians lie; it's the nature of their work. The public knows this, indeed, many citizens take pleasure in spotting their leaders as they lie. In most cases, their body language gives them away. Richard Nixon would blink quickly. Jimmy Carter smiled. (In his own mind, Ronald Reagan never lied-- hence no cues.) Clinton bites his lower lip. The problem with political body language is it can't be read in print. You have to be watching to catch them fibbing. That's why Newt Gingrich's verbal tic is so handy. Every time he says "frankly" you know some kind of lie is coming. And Nexus records every one. Either he's stretching to cover up some naked weakness in his argument, or he's praying that, "to tell you the truth," this will make you believe him on faith. The antidote: just substitute "I'm lying now." And "quite frankly" means "I'm really lying." As in:*On how well the Republican candidates for president are doing: "The odds are [I'm lying now] better than even."*On his lack of presidential ambitions: "I think that, [I'm lying now], we now see coming out of Florida three contenders who are very solid people, very capable of being president, and I can work very comfortably with any of the three."*On the unpopularity of his budget proposals: "In the long run people are going to say the Republican Congress produced the first balanced budget in a generation. And I think, [I'm lying now], as those facts come out, we'll do fine."*On his handling of the government shutdown: "The American people can judge who's doing the hard work of governing and who's, [I'm really lying now], playing destructive games."*On his book and his contributions to public discourse: "It is, [I'm lying now], disheartening to see the level of disinformation that passes for news in this country."*On Gail Sheehy's Vanity Fair profile, which reported his infidelities: "Every person I know who likes me, who talked with Gail Sheehy, [I'm lying now], resents having done so because she so systematically manipulated and was so totally dishonest in the article."*On Republican race-baiting: "There are a lot of folks who are very concerned we'll send a message of being insensitive to or hostile to minorities who are trying to rise. I think that would be, [I'm lying now], tragic."*On his regret at calling the Clintons "counter-cultural McGovern-niks" and "enemies" of normal people: "It was a [I'm lying now} foolish thing to do.On the other hand, sometimes Gingrich frankly means what he says, especially if he's making a behind-closed-doors statement not meant for public consumption. As in his warning to lobbyists a few weeks before the Republicans swept to power in Congress. "What we've said to all the PACs and, frankly, to their donors is that this is the year. For anybody who's not on board now, it's going to be the coldest years in Washington." As the cascade of cash into Republican coffers has shown, for once, he was telling the truth.