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Campaign ’04: Internet Politics: MoveOn’s Big Moment

4 minute read
Chris Taylor and Karen Tumulty

Few Democratic campaigns can boast matching funds from megarich financier George Soros, feisty speeches by Al Gore and a make-your-own-campaign-commercial contest conceived by pop star Moby. These are the trophies of MoveOn.org an activist website with just seven staff members and no office. What it does have is an e-mail list with 1.8 million members, who have little more in common than anger and a tilt to the left.

The seven staff members focus that anger on the liberal topic du jour. One day, MoveOn’s e-mail armada pushes a petition against the FCC’s relaxing rules on media ownership; the next, a fund drive that brought in $1 million in 48 hours to support the Texas state senators who had fled the state to stop a G.O.P. redistricting plan. There are no membership dues, and gratification is as instant as a mouse click. “MoveOn is easily the largest political-action committee in the country,” says Professor Michael Cornfield of George Washington University. “It’s the Christian Coalition of the left.”

MoveOn’s latest campaign is its most ambitious–a $10 million drive to fund anti-Bush commercials in key battleground states later this month. Billionaires Soros and Peter Lewis last week offered to give $1 for every $2 given by members, up to a cap of $5 million. Meanwhile, Moby and a host of celebrity pals (like Jack Black and Janeane Garafolo) are getting ready to judge the best commercial made by members, which MoveOn will air around the State of the Union.

All this began with Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, a married couple of Berkeley-based computer entrepreneurs whose company was best known for a screensaver that featured flying toasters. In 1997 they sold it for $13.8 million. Then came impeachment. Wes and Joan put together a website and sent it to friends. Its title and policy: Censure and Move On. As an afterthought, the couple put together an e-mail list of supporters. “It was supposed to be a flash campaign,” says Wes. “We’re in, we’re out, we’re fixed.”

But they were hooked. By 2000, MoveOn.org was raising $2 million for Democratic candidates, including more than $100,000 to help California’s Adam Schiff beat Congressman James Rogan, one of the House managers during Clinton’s impeachment trial. In mid-to late 2002, as the Iraq war loomed, the MoveOn e-mail list doubled, to 1 million. Wes and Joan hooked up with Zack Exley, whose parody campaign 2000 website, GWBush.com caused candidate Bush to declare, “There ought to be some limits to freedom”; and Eli Pariser, 22, a New Yorker whose post-9/11 e-mail petition for peace was signed by 500,000 people worldwide. All four still work out of their homes, communicating by e-mail, instant messaging and a regular Tuesday conference call.

In June, MoveOn held what was billed as the first Internet presidential primary, and more than 317,000 members voted. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean grabbed the top spot with 44%–not quite the 50% MoveOn required to endorse a candidate but enough to give his candidacy the momentum it still enjoys. Dean’s rivals grumbled that MoveOn had advised Dean on how to market himself to its members. Exley says the site had made the same offer to others, but “back then, the Dean campaign was the only one desperate enough to take us up on it.”

Now Wes and Joan’s quiet Berkeley home plays host to a steady stream of consultants and candidates coming to pay homage. Those who seek endorsement are in for a disappointment. “I don’t spend any time figuring out who the right candidate is,” says Wes. “All I want to do is evangelize populism, so they go away thinking ‘Whoa–there’s someone other than wealthy donors I have to impress?'” –By Chris Taylor and Karen Tumulty

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