The Five-Minute Activist

The Five-Minute Activist

The Five-Minute Activist

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Dec. 22 1999 3:30 AM

The Five-Minute Activist

34000_34651_islogo_130x20

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Bill Bradley has raked in more than $1 million from his Web site. That sounds pretty good until you consider that it's less than 5 percent of what he has raised overall. Jean Elliott Brown, a novice Democratic House candidate in Florida, has raised only $215,000 for her challenge to Rep. Mark Foley. But she has collected $90,000 of it--more than 40 percent--online.

Advertisement

Brown has done this with the help of Moveon.org, an online, grass-roots PAC. Moveon first made headlines in September 1998 as "Censure and Move On." Launched by husband-and-wife software entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades--Berkeley Systems, the company they founded, is most famous for the "Flying Toasters" screensaver--Censure and Move On was an online petition campaign urging Congress to call off impeachment proceedings, censure President Clinton, and get down to more important business.

Every online enterprise strives for viral marketing; Censure and Move On was Typhoid Mary. It signed up 100,000 folks in a week and 500,000 in a couple of months. The campaign delivered hundreds of thousands of petitions to House members, swamped congressional switchboards with 250,000 calls, and won meetings with more than 200 representatives--all through what Boyd and Blades call "word of mouse." Originally, this was all intended to be part of a "flash campaign" that would end with the 1998 election. But Boyd and Blades were outraged when House Republicans impeached Clinton after the election, so they converted Censure and Move On into a "we will remember" campaign. Between December and the end of the trial in February, visitors to the site pledged $13 million and 800,000 volunteer hours to oppose pro-impeachment members of Congress.

Things were quiet for a while. Then in June, Moveon re-emerged as a PAC. Boyd, Blades, and their advisers endorsed five candidates--all Democrats. In addition to Brown, who is a Moveon volunteer and public relations entrepreneur, the others are: California state Sen. Adam Schiff, who's running against House Manager Rep. James Rogan; Nancy Keenan, a Montanan seeking the seat of extremely conservative Rep. Rick Hill; Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who's challenging Sen. John Ashcroft; and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who in 1998 defeated Rep. Mike Pappas, a congressman who had gleefully caroled "Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr" on the House floor.

Moveon e-mailed solicitations to the 25,000 folks who had pledged, as well as to 275,000 others on its mailing list. Donors contribute online through Moveon's Web site; the organization then delivers the cash to the candidates. This "Internet bundling" is the first of its kind: It is modeled on the snail-mail bundling practiced by organizations such as Emily's List. Moveon raised $250,000 in five days and has harvested another $240,000 since, without any further solicitation. (The contributions are tiny--92 percent of them are $50 or less--but there are nearly 13,000 of them.) This kind of cash can't replace the $1,000 donors who are the backbone of every campaign, but it's enough to matter in House and Senate races. "We thought it might be interesting but probably not really worth more than the time," says Carnahan adviser Roy Temple. "It has way exceeded our expectations." For Holt, Schiff, and Keenan, the Moveon money comprises 10 percent to 20 percent of total fund raising.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Moveon money made the biggest difference for Brown, turning her from a no-chance challenger of a rich incumbent into a credible candidate. The Moveon infusion allowed her to report more than $100,000 in contributions by the Federal Election Commission's June 30 filing deadline. Now, she says, both Emily's List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are considering supporting her, which they would never have done without the Moveon money. "For Jean Elliott Brown, Moveon is far more important than the Florida Democratic Party or any interest group," says Phil Noble, who runs PoliticsOnline. The only real catch is that Moveon money exposes candidates to the charge that they are bought by out-of-state interests or Clinton-loving liberals. Ashcroft and Rogan are using their opponents' Moveon endorsement to help fund-raise from conservatives.

According to Blades, Moveon will also add more candidates to its roster this winter and will begin trying to direct those who volunteered time to campaigns. And Blades says the organization will ask for campaign contributions every month from now till Election Day, in hopes of reaping the entire $13 million promised. But even if it never collects as much as $1 million, Moveon will be a landmark: the first empirical evidence of the power of grass-roots Internet politics. Its success all but guarantees that other political movements will imitate Moveon's style of flash campaign, which far outstrips the sluggardly pace of direct mail. It is easy to imagine that an Internet movement could spring up to oppose, for example, Vermont's gay-marriage ruling: A drive targeted at conservatives could collect thousands of electronic petitions in no time and solicit contributions for anti-gay marriage politicians. Over time, some of these flash campaigns may begin to evolve into new kinds of political communities and quasi-parties.

"Five-minute activism," Boyd calls this. It may become the fastest, fieriest method ever devised for channeling citizen outrage.