John McCain, Cyberpopulist

J. Jackson Barlow

February 1, 2000

Listen to the modems screeching all across America. Is this the sound of politics to come?

In the first 48 hours after his victory in the New Hampshire primary, John McCain raised a million dollars over his web site. An astonishing 40 per cent of those donors were giving to a political candidate for the very first time. One in three were under the age of 40.

Without passing a single word of legislation, John McCain may have fundamentally changed the rules of campaigning. And these new rules might just sweep him into office in November. Meet John McCain, the cyberpopulist.

McCain’s success thus far is of course a rebuke to the Republican establishment. In New Hampshire, McCain trounced the establishment virtually across the board. (What really worries the GOP leadership is this: Despite their huffing and puffing about how New Hampshire loves mavericks, they know that today the state looks a lot more like the rest of the country than it did eight years ago.)

The Republican establishment has staked its political life on the nomination of George W. Bush (or, as one of my students calls him, Mini-Me). By surrounding Bush with an aura of well-financed (but vacuous) inevitability, and a platform designed to be a sure winner in 1992, his handlers thought they could sweep themselves to victory. But they forgot the voters in the process.

The Republican establishment has not learned that the rules have changed. Mini-Me is stuck with his aura, while McCain is defining the terms of the campaign. McCain has made himself the people’s candidate.

The cynical premise of the Bush campaign is that the people are easily manipulated. McCain really seems to believe that voters can think. Bush’s empty slickness only draws attention to the contrast. The more that Bush’s retainers try to out-spend, out-spin, and out-position McCain, the more they prove McCain’s point: Big Money politicians think the people are stupid.

The question then is, how can McCain’s grass roots base become energized behind the man whose main appeal is that he wants to return politics to the people?

The Internet may turn out to be the great equalizer. Political scientists and politicians have been wondering what the political effect of the Internet would be. Would there be “town meetings” in cyberspace? Would misinformation spread as rapidly as alligators in the sewers of New York?

Now we may have a partial answer. E-fundraising may in the future be as potent a force as e-commerce. A candidate who raises money over the Internet from thousands of small donors gets more than just money. He can get virtually instantaneous feedback about the voters’ concerns and interests. He can, in effect, listen. And this, in turn, may give a real voice and influence to the people.

Just as television changed the rules of the political game in 1960, the Internet may be changing the rules in 2000. As the “Straight Talk Express” rolls through cyberspace, listen for the sound of a new politics being born.

J. Jackson Barlow is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Juniata College and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.