It's David vs. Goliath, with David shooting 3 million e-mail messages instead of stones.
"I would like to express my sincere thanks for your helping me to stop Pat Buchanan in the upcoming Reform Party presidential primary. With your vote, we can rescue the Reform Party from a hostile Buchanan takeover and bring a new and positive direction to reform in America." That e-mail, from Natural Law Party nominee John Hagelin, is the opening salvo in an online direct-action campaign to scuttle Buchanan's attempt to win the Reform Party nomination.
Hagelin's e-mail directs people to ReasonToVote.com, where they can find information on how to request a ballot for the Reform Party's National Primary to be held in July. The deadline for entries is June 30.
The nuclear physicist candidate believes that Buchanan opposes most Reform Party beliefs. The Natural Law Party's platform, he contends, meshes with the Reform Party on campaign-finance reform, ending deficit spending, government accountability, fair trade with a nod toward labor, plus issues such as improving health care through preventative medicine, and developing sustainable energy.
Although Hagelin couldn't successfully compete with Buchanan for delegates, he saw the Reform Party's nominating process—the closet thing to a national plebiscite—as the perfect vehicle to fight the conservative commentator. Any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, can request a ballot for the primary. Ballots are also mailed to people who signed petitions to get the party on the ballot and to Reform Party members. Hagelin's plan is to win the primary, where a majority will secure the nomination in August. In 1996, Ross Perot won with 36,000 votes.
Hagelin estimates that it would cost "millions, if not tens of millions" to target voters using conventional means. Instead, he approached Nat Goldhaber of Cybergold, an online direct-marketing company. Cybergold pays cash to its 8 million members who visit different Web sites and answer questionnaires.
Cybergold is not paying members to visit ReasonToVote.com. Rather, Hagelin is paying Cybergold—he declines to say how much—to send out 3 million targeted e-mail messages. Money aside, Goldhaber says he is excited about participating in such "direct democracy."
If only a small percentage of the e-mail recipients vote for him, it could make the difference, says Hagelin, who sees Internet-savvy youths, environmentalists, and alternative medicine supporters as his base. Cybergold's members are affluent, educated, more likely to be women, and politically active, with a median age of 34.
The party's nominating procedure is Byzantine. Candidates must prove they can get the Reform Party on the ballot in the 30 states where it doesn't automatically have access. Ultimately 5.5 million signatures are needed to qualify in all 50 states. Of 11 potential candidates, only Buchanan and Hagelin have met the requirements.
The buzz is that Perot might run, but Buchanan's political director Tim Haley says, "It will be us and Hagelin, in our opinion."
Hagelin says, "Buchanan hasn't let people know about the primary because it's a popular vote he cannot win."
But even if Hagelin does sway the primary vote, the Buchanan campaign has a fallback: It has concentrated on "owning" as many Reform Party delegates as possible. Party bylaws allow two-thirds of the delegates to overturn the primary vote.
Delegates are selected by each of the state party organizations, usually the state chairman and vice chairman, at the state conventions. Buchanan has been showing up at these conventions and fighting to get his people elected as delegates.
Reform Party spokesman Donna Donovan says, "This was a fail-safe built into the process in the event of an extraordinary circumstance; for example, if the candidate passed away after being nominated."
Buchanan's strategy, says Haley, "is to win that mail-in vote, but we certainly have the delegates for a fallback position, enough to make sure someone can't overturn us being elected."
Haley seems unperturbed by Hagelin's e-mail end run. He says Buchanan has "collected in excess of half a million signatures. We are on the ballots in 20 states. Three more are expected, and Mr. Buchanan has filed for three more this week."
But how does the voting public feel about being petitioned via e-mail? "This is the first of these we've ever done, so I asked people if they wanted to get this kind of e-mail in the future," Goldhaber says. Many thousands responded. He says that some thought it was fantastic though others hated getting political ads. Is it spamming? "This was an experiment to see if people felt that way."