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Founded in 1998 by a pair of California-based software entrepreneurs as a way to mobilize like-minded liberal activists for political causes, became a driving force in funding, organizing, and promoting Democratic platforms and candidates during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and it was the most successful independent political-action group to do so exclusively through the Internet. In the summer of 2004 MoveOn hired the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to produce a series of television and print ads of his own devising. Morris proposed to film "real people" speaking directly to the viewer about why they were planning to vote for Senator John Kerry and not President George W. Bush. The hope was that this direct, one-to-one approach would help to convince the influential demographic of undecided voters to follow suit.

With MoveOn's backing, Morris set out to film interviews with ordinary citizens speaking in their own words, completely unscripted and unprompted, which he then edited into individual 30-second television spots. MoveOn initially earmarked $3 million for the campaign, with plans to run both TV and print advertising in late August to coincide with the Republican National Convention. Filmed against a plain white background with soft, even lighting, each person spoke frankly into the camera. In one ad, for example, a 26-year-old business analyst from New Jersey said, "We don't have, you know, universal health care, we've cut benefits for veterans, No Child Left Behind is a joke—we can't afford another four years of George Bush. It would be disastrous."

While the ads won critical accolades from industry insiders, incumbent Bush was reelected by a narrow margin. On the whole, however, MoveOn played an influential role in mobilizing both liberal donors and volunteers in the year leading up to the election. And while it did not achieve its goal of preventing a second term for President Bush, it continued to use the Internet to raise money and mobilize its members to promote liberal causes at both the local and federal levels.


Historically, because presidential candidates were often reluctant to have negative, biting, or derisive ads directly associated with their own campaigns, few "person-on-the-street" advertisements proved to be decisive factors in elections. Notable exceptions were the "Confessions of a Republican" spot run by the Lyndon Johnson campaign in 1964 and the Gerald Ford commercials attacking Jimmy Carter in 1976. Both of these spots featured people on the street, or supposedly real people, talking honestly of their concerns about the rival candidate. The Johnson spot actually used an actor in a studio and was scripted, although it was meant to appear authentic, while the Ford attack ads used street interviews with residents of Georgia, Carter's home state, explaining why they were not going to vote for their own governor as president. Both of these spots and others like them were in the category of "common people talking common sense," advertising aimed not directly from the candidate to the voter but from peer to peer in an attempt to convince people on either side to vote accordingly.

While political ads on television, from hard-hitting attack ads to feel-good slices of Americana, had changed little in tone and approach since the medium's inception in the 1950s, what did change dramatically in 2004 was how such ads were funded and targeted., more so than any other group inside or outside the political mainstream, embraced the relatively new technology of the Internet as both a fund-raising tool and a sounding board for its creative ideas. It even used its member base to help create ads, through calls for entries on its website. MoveOn repeatedly sent E-mails to its more than 2 million members and in many cases was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars literally overnight. And in the case of the spots directed by Morris, MoveOn was able to ask its members to vote for their favorites. This participatory process not only kept MoveOn's support base engaged but also shaped the group's decisions about which ads to air, based on popularity and efficacy.


The 2004 presidential election may be remembered as the election that cemented the term "swing voter" in the minds of the American public. In this case swing voters were those undecided or uncommitted citizens capable of "swinging" their votes either from Republican to Democrat or vice versa, regardless of their traditional party affiliation. The poll numbers suggested that these voters represented the largest block of undecided voters and that they could decide the election. It was no surprise, then, that both the Bush and Kerry campaigns searched for ways to attract this demographic, as did an increasing number of independent political-action groups, chief among them.

MoveOn's own base of supporters and volunteers was hardly undecided. The group did not shy away from taking risks or unabashedly wearing its liberalism on its sleeve. In fact, in late 2003 MoveOn sponsored a series of political ads attacking both President Bush and his policies. Its most widely known ad, "Child's Play," was never actually aired. The ad, the winner of a "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest sponsored by MoveOn, featured a series of images of young children working in menial jobs with the tagline "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?" CBS refused to air the ad during the 2004 Super Bowl, but the ensuing media coverage of the controversy helped promote MoveOn's cause to a wider audience.

As the election neared, MoveOn realized that galvanizing its liberal support base was one thing, while influencing the outcome of the election was another. In enlisting the work of Morris, the group hoped to change the minds of undecided voters with a more mannered, heartfelt approach.


While no other piece of political advertising used such a direct, one-on-one approach to target undecided voters, the ad campaign run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 group (or independent political organization), was effective in directing voters' attention away from the ads and their message. This group, spearheaded and funded in part by John O'Neill, a longtime critic of Kerry and himself a Vietnam veteran and former Swift Boat commander from the same unit, moved quickly to produce a series of ads directly calling into question the legitimacy of Kerry's war record. The ads specifically cast doubt on the circumstances in which Kerry had received his war medals, notably one of his Purple Hearts and his Bronze and Silver Stars. In addition, the Swift Boat Veterans used testimony given by Kerry in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as fodder for the attack ads. In his testimony, given shortly after his tour of duty, Kerry adopted an antiwar stance and described atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers against Vietnamese citizens, atrocities that he claimed were perpetrated with the full knowledge of the commanders in the field. While the Swift Boat Veterans ads were initially poorly funded and aired in smaller markets, the media attention they received gave them instant notoriety and national publicity, which led to additional financial backing from a number of wealthy Texas conservatives.

The commercials from the Swift Boat Veterans featured overlapping snippets of a series of vets talking about Kerry's conduct in Vietnam. In just one ad alone, titled "Any Questions?" veterans appearing in the ad collectively used the words "lied" or "lying" in relation to Kerry four times, the word "betrayed" twice, and the phrase "not been honest" twice. While much of the media coverage of the ads called into question their veracity—many of the men who spoke in the ads had not served with or been on active duty concurrently with Kerry—the damage was done. While the impact of a single campaign was difficult to measure, it was widely accepted that the Swift Boat Veterans ads, which ran for most of August and up until the election, had the greatest effect of any political ad campaign during the period.


Morris approached the Kerry campaign in the spring of 2004 with his idea for "switchers" ads, that is, ads designed to persuade those who were undecided to vote for Kerry. The Kerry campaign was interested in the concept but in the end felt that the ads would be too controversial to bear the imprimatur of the candidate. It was at this point that became involved. Morris took the idea for the ads directly to Wes Boyd, the cofounder of MoveOn. Boyd was immediately supportive, and he agreed to fund the production and to buy the television time and the newspaper space for the ads. Morris had conceived of ads featuring real people, notably Republicans who had voted for Bush in 2000 but who intended to vote for Kerry in 2004, talking in their own words about why they were making the switch. This was in the wake of producing the "Switchers" campaign for Apple Computer, Inc., in which Morris had filmed people explaining their decision to switch from Windows PCs to Macintosh computers.


So-called 527 groups had been around for decades, but they came to prominence only after the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill was signed into law in 2002. The law banned unlimited donations to candidates, political parties, or campaigns, limiting contributions to $2,000 from any individual or group. The law did not, however, restrict donations to nonprofit political groups that operated independently of a candidate's campaign. The number "527" referred to section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, under which these organizations filed for their status as independent political groups. As such, the groups were able to receive unlimited donations so long as they were not in direct contact and did not coordinate their efforts with any political party or campaign., Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, America Coming Together, and the Media Fund were the largest and best funded of these groups during the 2004 election.

Morris felt that his political ads would be a powerful way to talk directly to swing voters in an unmitigated fashion. As he told the New Yorker, "It isn't pollsters talking through actors. It isn't longtime Democrats talking to themselves. It's thoughtful Republicans … saying it's not us who are abandoning Bush; he's abandoned us." The ads were designed to be as simple and unadorned as possible. Each featured a single person against a plain white background talking directly into the camera in his or her own unscripted words. Morris used a device of his own invention, the Interrotron, to record the interviews; through a series of two-way mirrors Morris's face was projected across the camera lens as he talked with the subjects. This kept the subjects relaxed and comfortable while they looked and spoke directly into the camera. In essence the interviewees were looking a virtual Morris in the eye as they responded to his questions.

The subjects were culled from an E-mail questionnaire sent to MoveOn's more than 2 million members. Of the more than 20,000 people who responded to the E-mail, at least 500 fit the profile. In the end 41 were selected to be interviewed. The final group was diverse. It included military personnel, housewives, a financial advisor, a former U.S. ambassador, a medical transcriptionist, a college professor, warehouse workers, and Christian evangelicals. Morris interviewed each person for nearly an hour, eventually cutting the footage from each session to fill a 30-second television spot. He did not prepare the subjects for the interviews or ask them warm-up questions; he wanted the interviews to be open-ended and as uninfluenced by the process as possible.

As diverse as the participants were, they were united in one thing: they had voted for Bush in 2000 but were voting for Kerry in 2004. "The underlying idea is that the election is going to be decided by a very small group of voters," Morris told the Boston Phoenix. "What about these so-called undecideds? How do you reach them? I'm not particularly interested in just simply creating ads that make Democrats feel better. I'm interested in creating ads that will have some influence on that group." That influence, Morris decided, would come best from ordinary people talking directly to others without any motive other than explaining their own decisions to switch.

Morris and MoveOn's plan was to begin to air the ads—both as television spots and as full-page newspaper ads featuring photos of the interviewees with quotations from their testimonies as captions—during the Republican National Convention in New York City at the end of August. This would give the ads the greatest exposure to Republican voters in the hope that some, like the people featured in the ads, were not yet cemented in their voting positions. A full-page ad featuring nine of the people ran in the New York Times on the day the convention began.


In the end did not spend the full $3 million budgeted for the ads or follow through with its plans to air them in all of the "battleground" markets, as originally intended. According to Barbara Lippert in Brandweek, " funded production, but in the end, for reasons unclear, three ran only once on Fox, and one ran in Ohio. That effectively neutered them." Perhaps because the competition stepped up the viciousness of its own ads in the three months leading up to the election, MoveOn chose to go with harder-hitting negative ads rather than milder ads produced by Morris.

"MoveOn didn't, ultimately, help the Democrats capture the White House or even pick up any Congressional seats," wrote Todd Wasserman in Brandweek, "but it used the Internet in a way that had eluded other nonprofits and major political parties." Measured in terms of achieving its political goals, MoveOn's success was limited. But in terms of using a relatively new medium to maximum effect, MoveOn was a force to be reckoned with. As Amanda Griscom noted in Rolling Stone magazine, "MoveOn is the 800-pound gorilla left of center. There's no competing organization right of center that can exercise the same leverage, influence and muscle." Most importantly MoveOn tapped directly into a vast liberal base of supporters through the Internet, "galvanizing grass-roots activists in a way that hasn't been seen since the 1970s," according to Tara McKelvey in the American Prospect.


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                                            Jonathan Kolstad