Chances are, Democratic Party consultants won’t take credit for the hardest-hitting anti-Bush ad to air on network TV this month. That honor will likely go to MoveOn.org, an online group that has become too potent for establishment politicians to ignore.
Years before Howard Dean’s use of the Internet dazzled analysts and propelled him to the front of the 2004 Democratic presidential field, MoveOn paved the way, evolving in six short years from something of a cybergeek forum to arguably the largest and most forceful voice in digital-era politics.
Its members’ angry opposition to President Bush’s policies has coalesced into a force that includes a political action committee and fund-raising organization that has pledged to spend millions on anti-Bush TV ads.
In its latest campaign, MoveOn invited people to create their own anti-Bush ads. More than 1,500 entries were submitted, and hundreds of thousands of wired MoveOn members voted for the most effective. The 15 most popular will be judged Monday in New York, and the winning ad will air the same week President Bush gives his State of the Union address.
MoveOn was founded by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, computer entrepreneurs who also created the flying toaster computer screen saver, during the Clinton impeachment debate as an online petition urging Congress to censure him and move on to other business.
2.3 million members claimed
Today, MoveOn claims 2.3 million members whose energy has been channeled into advocacy and millions of dollars for anti-Bush ads — much of it coming in very small donations from people who never gave to politicians before.
“It’s been a magic injection of courage and backbone for the Democratic party in many ways,” said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. “We’ve been overwhelmed by talk radio and Republicans’ ability to stir up their base, and MoveOn has really stepped into that void.”
With six paid staffers and Boyd and Blades serving as full-time volunteers, MoveOn has applied some of the same Silicon Valley strategies that turned eBay and Google into powerhouses.
The site is organized in ways traditional political consultants might not stomach. Any member can propose priorities and strategies to which others can respond, and the most-supported ideas rise to the top.
That means ceding control over much of the content to motivated online participants, producing interactivity that adds grass-roots credibility.
It also adds risk: When the GOP discovered that one of the 1,500 anti-Bush ad entries compared the president to Adolf Hitler, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie called it “political hate speech” and demanded that the nine Democratic presidential candidates repudiate it.
Boyd quickly removed the proposed ad but promised not to be scared off.
“The lesson (traditional consultants) learned from that is, don’t bring people in because they may say something that might reflect badly on you,” Boyd said. “We have to be very deliberate and not let it change how we do things.”
Moving with lightning speed
Once the MoveOn community arrives at a decision, it can move with lightning speed. Its “flash campaigns” can flood congressional offices with hundreds of thousands of phone calls and online petitions in a matter of days.
It also has attracted powerful allies. In November, billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his business partner, Peter Lewis, pledged a $5 million matching grant — a dollar for every two raised by MoveOn members — to create a $15 million advertising campaign to defeat President Bush. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen responded with an online petition denouncing Soros.
Boyd and Blades have tried to maintain a low profile during MoveOn’s rise to fame. They’ve also tried to steer the organization toward “progressive” issues and avoid topics such as abortion rights and gun control that could rupture their members’ unity.
“We grow stronger when we engage in an area where there is some frustration and broad consensus,” Boyd said, “as opposed to partisans beating themselves over the head about cultural issues which get media attention and horse race coverage.”
MoveOn’s main target may be Bush and his allies, but its tactics also are a slap at Democrats. Boyd says they generally lack leadership and creativity, and could learn something from MoveOn’s amateurs.
“In talking to a lot of the campaigns, you realize they’re all run by the same group of a dozen professionals.” Boyd said. “They’re like carnies, they go from campaign to campaign, and the only way they can lose is doing something that seems stupid so they never try anything new.”
Despite MoveOn’s considerable buzz, it has yet to prove it can make voters turn out at the polls.
“They’ve shown us how to raise money but I don’t know what it means electorally yet,” Backus said, “and Republicans want the public to think of Democrats as elitist. That’s the danger of an Internet-based strategy.”