Net Election

The Internet—Kingmaker for Small Parties? 

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

American politics has had a long-standing fixation on the two-party system. There has not been a serious third-party threat to the Democrat and Republican duopoly since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose crusade in 1912.

But today’s most ambitious third-party advocates believe they have an edge that their 20th-century precursors lacked: the Internet. Consider this: The Natural Law Party, formed in 1992, fielded 128 candidates that year. This year, it has over 1,000 candidates in all 50 states.

The party attributes this spurt to the Net. “I’d say it’s the single most important element in growing a political party today,” says Natural Law spokesman Robert Roth. “We can get our message out without phone calls, without mailing costs. Voters can go right to the Web site and get the party platform.” They can also find the biography of current presidential candidate (and nuclear physicist) John Hagelin.

Of course, an innovative Web site can’t guarantee an election victory, even for prominent Republicans and Democrats. But the Internet played a big role in insurgent campaigns such as those of Bill Bradley and John McCain, and it has also helped smaller parties gain a toehold on the electoral process.

The Libertarian Party used the Net to organize against the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s proposed “Know Your Customer” banking regulation last year. The FDIC received 250,000 negative comments, and the Libertarians claimed responsibility for 170,000 of those. The criticisms were forwarded to elected representatives, and both the House and Senate passed resolutions asking the FDIC to rethink its proposal.

“That was the first time we had done that,” says Libertarian National Director Steve Dasbach. “We’re learning more about what issues work and what don’t.” One that didn’t: an attempt to generate Libertarian excitement about U.S. involvement in Kosovo. Despite such sputtering experiments, the Libertarians say most of the requests they get for party information now comes via the Internet. “I don’t think that trend is peculiar to us,” Dasbach says. Moreover, as McCain demonstrated, the Web streamlines the fund-raising process—especially if candidates can use hot-button issues to fuel donations.

“In 1998, we had $1,000 a month in dues. Last year, it was $4,000. This year, it’s $8,000,” says Dasbach. That trend translates into a more competitive electoral field.

The Libertarians have no illusions that they’ll take power in 2000 or see standard-bearer Harry Browne elected president or that they’ll even win a seat in Congress. “It’s a David and Goliath struggle, and we’re too small to do that,” says Press Secretary George Getz. Perhaps, but in a close local election they could swing the balance of power in a showdown between Republican and Democratic rivals.

Getz says the Libertarian Party probably won’t have the resources for a real shot at a national election for four to six years. Their goal right now is “2,000 in 2000,” or 2,000 candidates nationwide, including 218 for the U.S. House of Representatives. Four years ago they had 736 candidates.

All they want is to get one candidate elected. “Even one Libertarian in Congress would be like putting a designated driver in a roomful of drunks,” he says.

The  Green Party is another noticeably Net-dependent political group. Despite the fact that its likely presidential nominee, Ralph Nader, has been a critical voice on many Net issues, his nascent presidential campaign leans heavily on the Net. “The Green Party does almost all its business on the Internet,” says Dean Myerson, a liaison between the party and Nader’s campaign. “It is an international party in 70 or 80 nations as well as all 50 states, so the Internet is almost essential since we are not funded by wealthy people. The ability to connect us together and coordinate has been critical.”

Organizing in cyberspace does have its limits. The Red Scare in 1919 and decades of regulations from self-protecting incumbents have led to legal obstacles that have foiled many an effort at establishing alternative parties. “There are two sets of laws, one for Republicans and Democrats, which are automatically on the ballot, and for third parties, which have signature requirements,” says Natural Law’s Roth. A killer Web site is not yet a legal substitute for the petition process, and byzantine requirements that vary from state to state eat up a lot of time and resources for smaller parties. (The Reform Party argues, somewhat confusingly, that state laws make it impossible for them even to know how many members they have. “We have no figures,” says party spokeswoman Donna Donovan. “And if the Republicans and Democrats do, they’re lying. There’s no way to know. Every state is different. Some states don’t register by party.”)

And then there’s the biggest obstacle of them all: turning Internet enthusiasm into effective candidacies when most small-party candidates are virtually unknown. Roth, from the Natural Law Party, is realistic about the problem: “Candidates still need to be seen. You still have to campaign.”