Long before votes are cast in modern presidential elections, elite donors narrow the race by picking a few acceptable candidates, who are then crowned frontrunners for leading the “money primary.” But wait–wasn’t the Internet supposed to change all this? Now thousands of people can pool relatively small donations to boost a candidate into the first tier, while bloggers promote their favorites to audiences rivaling those of major newspapers. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. Internet fundraising has made the competition for early money not only fiercer but even more influential in handicapping the race, because donations are revered as proof of electability and grassroots enthusiasm.
When Barack Obama raised a whopping $25 million in the first quarter, for example, MSNBC headlined the news as confirmation of his “grassroots power.” After Obama pulled in an unprecedented $32.5 million in the second quarter, he said the money proved his team had “built the largest grassroots campaign in history.” Never mind that most voters and activists never donate to presidential candidates, and that grassroots campaigns are supposed to emphasize issues important to local activists, not national fundraising. Now if candidates fail to raise big money quickly, they are disregarded before the public ever hears about their positions.
But one powerful group is challenging this system with an alternative to the money primary. MoveOn.org, the organization that pioneered low-dollar Internet fundraising and showered Democrats with more midterm campaign donations than almost any other liberal PAC, is advocating a primary campaign that is downright old-fashioned. A primary based on the issues.
“We have this presidential campaign process that’s starting earlier than ever before and in some ways is less about the issues than ever before. It’s all horse race all the time,” explains Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director. Instead of fixating on fundraising or electability, the organization is convening three “virtual” town halls for candidates to address the group’s 3.3 million members via YouTube and podcasts. Each event is devoted to a single topic. Candidates field questions directly from MoveOn members, providing “real depth on the issues they care about,” Pariser says.
After each gathering, MoveOn members appraise the candidates on the issue at hand. After the Iraq town hall the question was not whom people might vote for on election day–the horse race query that drives most polls and campaign coverage–but simply “which candidate do you believe would be best able to lead the country out of Iraq?” Obama and John Edwards led with 28 and 25 percent, followed by 17 percent for Dennis Kucinich.
In July the second town hall tackled global warming, with 1,300 gatherings around the country coinciding with Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts. More than 100,000 people participated, making it the largest MoveOn event since 2004. One-third of participants favored Edwards’s approach to the “climate crisis,” while Kucinich, Clinton and Obama each drew 15 percent. The final town hall, in October, is on healthcare, coordinated with Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, and then MoveOn will help its members put some muscle behind their policy preferences.