MoveOn Grows Up
Thursday, October 9, 2008
NEW YORK Five days after Sen. John McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Quinn Latimer and co-worker Lyra Kilston sent an e-mail to 40 female friends and invited them to outline the reasons they were upset with his choice. It elicited such a huge response -- from friends of friends and utter strangers -- that they created a blog called Women Against Sarah Palin. In less than a month, it has become one of the largest hubs of online opposition to Palin, receiving more than 160,000 e-mails.
"I am a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican," writes a 65-year-old from Flagstaff, Ariz. "I am aghast at the choice the Republican ticket has made."
"As a registered Independent, I'd been holding out in deciding which way to go on this election. However, once I saw Sarah Palin being interviewed . . . it was a much easier decision," writes a 52-year-old from Los Angeles.
Along the way, Latimer got an e-mail from Eli Pariser, head of the liberal group MoveOn.org. Pariser knows about e-mail campaigns; he built MoveOn around them. And Latimer has been a member of the organization since 2000. When Pariser found out that Latimer and Kilston also live in Brooklyn, he asked them to brunch at Flatbush Farm, a local hot spot. Over eggs, oatmeal and coffee, he offered technical support from MoveOn. At one point, he even suggested that the women take time off from their jobs and work full time on the blog until Nov. 4. MoveOn, Pariser told the women, could raise the funds to pay them.
"I got to admit I was shocked by that," says Latimer, 30, an art editor.
Adds Kilston, 31, also an art editor: "We just kind of stumbled into this whole blogging thing."
The women decided to keep their jobs while maintaining the site. But now, with help from MoveOn, they'll use the e-mail list of everyone who has sent a note to the blog to send information about voter registration, phone call drives and house parties. And, to match their online activism, Latimer and Kilston plan to knock on doors for Sen. Barack Obama in Pennsylvania.
MoveOn, the enfant terrible of online politicking, is growing up, turning 10 years old last month. And it has become far more than a purveyor of vituperative e-mail blasts. During the 2006 midterm elections, for instance, the online organization -- with a full-time staff of 23, most of whom work from home -- spent $28 million advocating for Democratic candidates through its political action committee, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In contrast, the National Rifle Association, with a staff of about 500 housed in its expansive headquarters in Fairfax, spent $11 million through its PAC.
As the battle between Obama and McCain heated up this summer, MoveOn witnessed its largest increase in membership -- adding a million new members in three months, bringing its total to 4.2 million.
Not bad for a group that started off as an online petition to stop the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Created in September 1998 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the petition asked Congress to censure Clinton and "move on" to other domestic issues.
"At first, we weren't sure what to make of MoveOn," says Paul Begala, then a senior aide in the Clinton White House. "But it became clear that the grass-roots power that MoveOn represents is what helped save us." In the years since -- through the group's virulent opposition to President Bush and the Iraq war -- Begala has regarded MoveOn as a "spinal transplant" that has reinvigorated the Democratic Party.
Perhaps that's an exaggeration. Democrats, after all, lost the White House in 2000 and 2004. It wasn't until the 2006 midterms that they controlled Congress. Still, political operatives in both parties agree that MoveOn is a singular force in Washington, unmatched in its reach and resources. For years, some Republicans have tried to create their own version of it, with little success. At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., last month, Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, bemoaned that the right has "nothing that looks like MoveOn.org," adding that the GOP is "still in denial about what the left has been able to do."