Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
Even with almost $13 million in taxpayer money at stake in the legal battle over the Reform Party presidential nomination, control of the party's Web site might turn out to be a more valuable prize for supporters of rival candidates Pat Buchanan and John Hagelin.
As part of a federal lawsuit scheduled to be heard this week in Virginia, Buchanan supporters have asked a judge to force Hagelin loyalists to relinquish control of the Reformparty.org Web address, which has been the party's official online home since 1995.
For minor party presidential candidates who garner little attention in the news media, the Internet has become a powerful tool for organizing supporters, raising money, and introducing voters to party platforms. Buchanan's campaign gives the Internet enormous credit for helping him get on state primary ballots, and Hagelin has called it a key component of his grass-roots efforts.
"If we lose the Web site, we lose a key vehicle that we have to get out the word about who the Reform Party is," says Jim Mangia, a Hagelin supporter and one of two people who claim to be the party's rightful chairman.
"My biggest fear is contributions," says Gerald Moan, who chairs the Buchanan faction. According to Buchanan's campaign, the TV commentator has been raising $25,000 a month on his personal campaign Web site. Moan said he didn't know how much the Reform Party had raised online.
Both Hagelin and Buchanan could face a significant disadvantage in reaching the public without the Reform Party's URL. The 10 most popular search engines, as ranked by MediaMetrix, all list Reformparty.org as the official party site. None even mentions a new Reform Party site set up by Buchanan supporters.
Dror Bar-Sadeh, communication director of the Hagelin branch of the Reform Party, said he has controlled the Reformparty.org address since 1997, two years after it was first registered. He said Buchanan allies tried unsuccessfully to get Network Solutions, a company that registers Web addresses, to take the site away from him after the party split into two factions earlier this month at its convention. Now the matter is going to court. This is not the first time that a federal judge has determined control of the Reform Party Web site. In March, the same judge that will hear the complaint this week ordered a former party chairman to turn over operation of the party Web site to Buchanan supporters. The Buchanan wing lost control of the site again when Bar-Sadeh remained with the Hagelin faction during the party's most recent split. Buchanan's campaign is familiar with this type of struggle. Last October, campaign manager Bay Buchanan fired Webmaster Linda Muller, who founded the unofficial online "Buchanan Brigade" during the TV commentator's 1996 presidential campaign. After she was fired, Muller reestablished her unofficial online campaign and eventually formed a federal political action committee in January—but not before sending several e-mail messages to her group lambasting the quality of Buchanan's official online effort. Muller did not respond to requests for interviews.
Although Muller and the Buchanan campaign have had bad blood in the past, she now appears to be squarely on board with the cause. Last week, Muller sent an e-mail to the members of the brigade, telling them that "we have a temporary RPUSA [Reform Party] Web site set up at: http://www.reform-party-usa.org/."
Buchanan supporter Bob Bevill registered the new site a day after Buchanan accepted the Reform Party's disputed presidential nomination. For the past two weeks, Bevill has been copying the graphics and design of the Reformparty.org site piece by piece and reconstructing his own page, which promotes Buchanan as the rightful nominee. Bevill and Bar-Sadeh both claim the title of communication director for the party.
Unlike other complaints, in which candidates have tried to get opponents to change the content or legal status of attack sites that could be mistaken for official campaign sites, the Buchanan supporters' lawsuit seeks complete control over the Web address. "That creates so much confusion in the party itself and among the electorate," says Washington attorney Dale Cooter, who is working with Moan on the case.
Even Buchanan's supporters are adding to the confusion. Muller has not given the Brigade address—Buchanan.org—over to the campaign. Buchanan's official site can be found at several variations of BuchananReform and Gopatgo2000, or at Gopatgo.org. However, Gopatgo.com redirects visitors to Al Gore's site and is owned by a Florida man who gave $500 to John McCain's primary campaign.
The fight over the party's Web site is just one small part of a larger struggle that also has the two factions fighting before the Federal Election Commission and 50 state election officials. Although the federal judge will determine who controls the site and the party, the FEC will determine which candidate receives the $12.6 million in matching funds, while the states control whose name—or names—are finally placed on the ballots.
Because none of those decisions are entirely dependent on the others, solving the Web site dispute might be only the first step in ending voter confusion.