There was always something quaintly old-fashioned about the way Americans embarked on the long process of choosing their next president: the town hall meetings, the closed-door caucus, the chase for state party delegates. Now, with nine Democrats vying for the job of challenging George Bush in November 2004, the process has been brought bang up to date with the arrival of a potentially revolutionary new tool: the online primary.
Yesterday was the second of two days of voting at a political website of growing prominence called MoveOn.org.
Proclaiming itself as a new model for grassroots activism - which is to say it seeks to promote mostly liberal causes - the site has attracted 1.4 million subscribers in the United States and another 700,000 overseas. About two thirds of the membership were galvanised by their opposition to the war in Iraq. But they all share the goal of sending President Bush off into the sunset.
That's quite some constituency, which explains why all nine Democratic candidates have submitted statements and policy positions to the site and are taking the result of the primary - to be announced tomorrow - in deadly earnest.
The MoveOn.org primary will not only pre-empt next January's Iowa caucus, until now regarded as the first big test of the candidates' mettle, it is also likely to reflect the views of several hundreds of thousands more voters than Iowa ever musters.
The online primary is almost bound to favour the liberal candidates, with Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, expected to come out on top, followed by Senator John Kerry and Congressman Dennis Kucinich. But that's not a reason to dismiss it. On the contrary, the winner can expect to raise an extra $30m (£18m) in campaign funds.
Since the liberal candidates tend to be the least well-funded - Senator Kerry being an exception - the MoveOn.org primary has the potential to subvert many of the usual expectations of a presidential campaign. Political commentators have already begun wondering aloud if the internet would have allowed Gary Hart to trump Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination in 1984, or if it would have given John McCain the extra edge he needed to beat George Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000.
MoveOn.org's founders, Wes Boyd and his wife, Joan Blades, are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs previously best known for designing the flying toaster screensaver for home computers. They founded the site in 1998 in disgust at the Republican Party's attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. Sexual indiscretion, they felt, was not a reason to bring the federal government to a halt. It was time to move on - hence the name.
With the advent of the Bush administration, MoveOn's constituency grew and grew. By the mid-term elections last November, its Political Action Committee had raised more than $4m for progressive candidates across the country. And that was before the big surge in membership that accompanied the anti-war movement, which MoveOn was instrumental in organising. The site's influence is palpable, particularly in a political environment in which it is one of the few glimmers of good news for liberals and Bush opponents.Reuse content