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MoveOn Mania: Much Ado About Relatively Little

Presidential campaign watchers show signs of being smitten with MoveOn.org, an Internet organization that held an “online poll” last week. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Associated Press described the vote as an “online Democratic presidential primary” and Newsweek called it “the first presidential primary.” Plenty of political insiders have talked about the organization as a significant force in this cycle capable of mobilizing activists and raising important cash for the Democrat it ultimately endorses.

I don’t doubt the growing usefulness of the Internet to candidates and political parties, or the potential importance of an endorsement to someone like Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic contest. But I think that we all need to think a little bit more about MoveOn.org as a political force, and we need to put this so-called primary into some context.

MoveOn.org claims that 317,639 people “voted” in its “first-ever-on-line-Democratic primary.” The group’s June 26 press release noted that that number “surpasses the combined totals of the 2000 Democratic Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.”

I have a couple of problems with this.

First, the group claims about 1.4 million members. That means “turnout” in the primary was about 22.6 percent. It also means that more than 1 million MoveOn.org “members” chose not to vote, possibly because they haven’t made up their minds yet, don’t support the process or aren’t as engaged as MoveOn.org would have you believe.

MoveOn.org PAC treasurer Wes Boyd said turnout was “amazing,” but in fact, turnout on the Web site compares unfavorably to the 2000 GOP and Democratic primary turnout in New Hampshire.

According to data collected by Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, 17.45 percent of the 2000 New Hampshire voting age public (excluding non-citizens) voted in the state’s Democratic primary, and 26.0 percent voted in the state’s GOP primary.

Since only partisans and independents can vote in each party primary, turnout among eligible primary voters was much higher in each of the primaries than in MoveOn.org’s Web poll.

Yes, MoveOn.org’s poll took place much earlier in the process than does the New Hampshire primary, and that could explain the lack of participation. But I didn’t schedule it for June of the off-year, so don’t blame me.

Given that MoveOn.org members constitute a politically interested and active self- selected universe, and that voting on the Web is relatively easy to do — especially when compared to going out of your house on a winter night in Iowa or New Hampshire — turnout should have been higher in the Internet “poll.” After all, all you have to do is jump onto your computer, hit a few keys and you’re done.

Second, MoveOn.org’s claim that more people voted last week than in the 2000 Democratic Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries is both misleading and nonsensical. There was no South Carolina Democratic presidential primary in 2000!

Third, only one in four “primary voters” asked MoveOn.org to share their contact information with the candidate of their choice. And just 15.5 percent promised to support a campaign financially. Again, given the self- selected nature of the universe (and participants), those numbers hardly seem “amazing.”

And then there is the problem of MoveOn.org itself.

Its Web site says it is “working to bring ordinary people back into politics” and that “many of our current leaders actively disregard public opinion and common sense.” It refers to “a disconnect between broad public opinion and legislative action.”

All of this, of course, is gibberish. Heavily ideological groups on the left and the right regularly complain that the nation’s leaders are ignoring public opinion when they really mean that those leaders are not pursuing the goals and priorities of the particular group.

MoveOn.org’s grounding in the peace movement and its positions on the issues place the group at the left end of the Democratic Party, which itself is more liberal than the country as a whole. There is nothing wrong with that, but references to the MoveOn.org “primary” seem to equate it with other Democratic primary electorates. It isn’t close to the same thing.

MoveOn.org constitutes a small, untested constituency of the Democratic Party. Given that former Vermont Gov. Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) together drew more than 67 percent of the “votes,” we know only that the “winner” of the “Web poll” appeals to much of the party’s left.

From a public relations point of view, MoveOn.org’s “primary” was a success. The group got plenty of attention and was treated as a player in the Democratic contest. Dean is also a winner. He can claim to have “won” something, and a win is a win, especially when the media cover it.

But given the participation and the timing of the event, the MoveOn.org “primary” didn’t deserve all of the attention it received in the mainstream media. And it ought to be forgotten quickly.