Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
American politics has had a long-standing fixation on the two-party system. There has not been a serious third-party threat to the Democrat and Republican duopoly since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose crusade in 1912.
But today's most ambitious third-party advocates believe they have an edge that their 20th-century precursors lacked: the Internet. Consider this: The Natural Law Party, formed in 1992, fielded 128 candidates that year. This year, it has over 1,000 candidates in all 50 states.
The party attributes this spurt to the Net. "I'd say it's the single most important element in growing a political party today," says Natural Law spokesman Robert Roth. "We can get our message out without phone calls, without mailing costs. Voters can go right to the Web site and get the party platform." They can also find the biography of current presidential candidate (and nuclear physicist) John Hagelin.
Of course, an innovative Web site can't guarantee an election victory, even for prominent Republicans and Democrats. But the Internet played a big role in insurgent campaigns such as those of Bill Bradley and John McCain, and it has also helped smaller parties gain a toehold on the electoral process.
The Libertarian Party used the Net to organize against the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s proposed "Know Your Customer" banking regulation last year. The FDIC received 250,000 negative comments, and the Libertarians claimed responsibility for 170,000 of those. The criticisms were forwarded to elected representatives, and both the House and Senate passed resolutions asking the FDIC to rethink its proposal.
"That was the first time we had done that," says Libertarian National Director Steve Dasbach. "We're learning more about what issues work and what don't." One that didn't: an attempt to generate Libertarian excitement about U.S. involvement in Kosovo. Despite such sputtering experiments, the Libertarians say most of the requests they get for party information now comes via the Internet. "I don't think that trend is peculiar to us," Dasbach says. Moreover, as McCain demonstrated, the Web streamlines the fund-raising process—especially if candidates can use hot-button issues to fuel donations.
"In 1998, we had $1,000 a month in dues. Last year, it was $4,000. This year, it's $8,000," says Dasbach. That trend translates into a more competitive electoral field.
The Libertarians have no illusions that they'll take power in 2000 or see standard-bearer Harry Browne elected president or that they'll even win a seat in Congress. "It's a David and Goliath struggle, and we're too small to do that," says Press Secretary George Getz. Perhaps, but in a close local election they could swing the balance of power in a showdown between Republican and Democratic rivals.
Getz says the Libertarian Party probably won't have the resources for a real shot at a national election for four to six years. Their goal right now is "2,000 in 2000," or 2,000 candidates nationwide, including 218 for the U.S. House of Representatives. Four years ago they had 736 candidates.
All they want is to get one candidate elected. "Even one Libertarian in Congress would be like putting a designated driver in a roomful of drunks," he says.