Running for president the old-fashioned way is demanding and dangerous work. On the campaign trail, candidates routinely get sick, lose their voice, or worse. George Wallace was shot; Bill Bradley had a heart murmur; a few weeks after the 2000 campaign, Dick Cheney had a heart attack. With such a crowded field, the risks this cycle are greater than ever. Residents in Iowa and New Hampshire will be able to name their price: A candidate might have to shovel a sidewalk five or six times for every vote.
Thanks to U4Prez.com, never again will frostbite, overexertion, and hand sanitizers stand in the way of a presidential bid. Launching your campaign couldn't be easier. You don't have to line up fund-raisers, placate interest groups, impress pundits, or sell your soul to consultants. To get started, you just need to pick a party, provide your age and other simple biographical information, and answer a few basics: "my favorite president"; "least favorite president"; "my number 1 issue"; "my direction for the country"; and "my soundbite." The site asks for a photo, but it can be of someone else. On the Internet, no one knows you're not Abraham Lincoln.
In a massive improvement over the real-world nominating process, every U4Prez candidate is required to answer the Roger Mudd question: "What I would do as President." Here again, the site is refreshing for its straight talk. Under the space for "your political philosophy," it says helpfully, "Feel free to cut and paste."
Once you've entered the race, visitors to the site view your profile and rate your candidacy against the rest of the pack. The top candidates in each party are listed. From time to time, the editors arrange runoffs—not unlike the virtual primaries that take place with real-life candidates on other Web sites. The "how to get votes" page is full of helpful real-world insights: "The best way is to be bold! Take positions and explain your case. We're much more likely to feature candidates who provide detail and take risks."
How does U4Prez's virtual presidential field stack up against the bricks-and-mortar version? Obviously it's too early to predict a winner, especially since (like the real-world campaign), the horse race seems designed to last forever. Nonetheless, a few trends are already clear:
1. So far, despite the blogosphere's liberal reputation, more Republicans than Democrats seem to want to choose their president the U4Prez way. The last time I checked, Democrats had no candidates rated above 5 (on a scale of 1-10); Republicans had eight candidates ranked that high. One top Republican was Court4Prez, who opposes the minimum wage, bashes illegal immigration, and says of Iraq, "if you wont stand behind our troops, than you can stand in front of them!" Conservatives might well rate their online Republican choices higher than their real-life ones. Indeed, Court4Prez would be a perfect choice to fill the Republican Party's current vacuum of diehard conservative candidates, except for one thing: She's only 18.
2. The rest of the political world may be hopelessly polarized, but in this online enclave, the post-partisan era has arrived. One Democratic candidate, GrantMan, claims Ronald Reagan as his favorite president and briefly climbed as high as fourth place while running under the Gipper's photo. Geographically, Democratic front-runner BUCKEYEKID might be well positioned for the general election, but he'd have a tough time winning any real-world Democratic primaries as a pro-lifer whose top issue is "smaller government."
3. Many real-world candidates don't seem to fare any better on U4Prez than U4Prez candidates would likely fare in the real world. (Exception: Late Tuesday, a Mitt Romney clone—if that is not a redundancy—took over as the highest-rated candidate, but few voters had weighed in yet. He could not name a favorite or worst president, listed only his résumé under "what I would do as president," and lied about his age, claiming to be 37.)
John Edwards may be the front-runner in Iowa polls, but in Tuesday's face-off, his proxy was losing by 2-1 to a Republican couch potato named erock. Like many candidates on U4Prez, erock offers a detailed and iconoclastic platform: more troops in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, higher taxes on tobacco and on the very rich, a Social Security lockbox, teacher testing, an end to the Cuban embargo, and a fence between the United States and Mexico. He refers to our Mexican "boarder," which could give Mickey Kaus a whole new line of attack.
I hated Time's "You" cover, which even magazine insiders thought proved that the only thing worse than Person of the Year is Second Person of the Year. But U4Prez.com might be onto something. If the site becomes the MySpace of presidential campaigns, real-life candidates could use it as a testing ground for more daring platforms.
The site could also help pare down the clutter of the real field. Vanity candidates like Duncan Hunter could spare themselves the embarrassment of a last-place finish in Iowa by running online instead. With luck, the right photo, and a hard-fought campaign, who knows? Hunter might even give Court4Prez a run for her money. ... 12:51 A.M. (link)