Monday, May. 21, 2012
By Michael Crowley
When Americans elect announced last July that it was pouring millions into placing a third-party presidential candidate on the ballot in all 50 states, the political world snapped to attention. Barack Obama's longtime political adviser David Axelrod revealed his concern by publicly criticizing the group, while pundits gushed. "Watch out," declared New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote that Americans Elect might change politics the way the iPod changed music.
So far, Americans Elect is looking more like the Zune than the iPod. The group canceled a May 8 online caucus after no candidate met the necessary criterion of 1,000 backers in each of 10 states. More voting scheduled for later this month may also be scratched; it's possible that Americans Elect won't nominate a single candidate. That might say more about this well-intentioned effort's shortcomings than it does about the durability of our two-party system.
Founded by a group of political centrists, including former investment banker Peter Ackerman, Americans Elect had a promising plan: "break gridlock" and challenge "special interests" by helping elect a President beholden to no party. It invited people to join online, nominate candidates and ultimately select one through Internet voting. (To be eligible, candidates needed credentials meeting the group's somewhat subjective criteria.)
This was far more than a glorified political-science project. The group had backing from well-known moderates, including former Senator David Boren of Oklahoma, a Democrat, and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican. It also had money. Americans Elect's website alone cost $10 million, and another $15 million has gone toward its most valuable asset: ballot access. Americans Elect has secured a ballot line in 26 states and expects to make it 50 by November.
Despite that feat, which has eluded many an independent party, an underwhelming 420,000 people have signed up with Americans Elect online. Many of those are supporting little-known or quirky candidates, including former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer and Rocky Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor--hardly the heavyweights the group's founders seem to have envisioned. "Buddy Roemer doesn't qualify as a game changer," says Matt Bennett of the centrist think tank Third Way. (Neither Roemer nor Anderson is likely to qualify for the group's nomination. Ron Paul, another choice, doesn't even want it.)
In short, Americans Elect is all cart and no horse. Memorable third-party candidacies tend to be driven by big characters: Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, George Wallace, Teddy Roosevelt. Americans Elect bet that the abstract goal of taking on the two-party system to make Washington more accountable would be enough. It wasn't.
Nor has the current campaign driven Americans to a third-party option. Americans Elect's CEO, Kahlil Byrd, says voters are frustrated with Obama's and Mitt Romney's "complete lack of focus on the issues that people care about," including jobs, the economy, the debt and foreign policy.
But are they really? The parties may skirmish over manufactured controversies, and both candidates are vague on some key points. But Romney has a tax plan and a Medicare strategy, and Obama talks about infrastructure and taxing the rich. "You can't accurately say the two parties aren't talking about the debt or deficit or jobs or the economy," says Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who advises a pro-Obama super PAC. "I haven't the slightest idea what someone from Americans Elect would do."
Had the GOP primaries ended differently, Americans Elect might have taken off. A year ago it did not seem totally implausible that, say, Michele Bachmann would win the GOP nomination, leaving a wide gap between Tea Party absolutism and Obama's center-left pragmatism. Instead, Republicans wound up with a center-right pragmatist in Romney. There's not a burning sense that the political center lacks a voice.
Still, you can't write off a well-funded outfit with national ballot access. Especially when the public is in an angry mood. Americans Elect's pollster, Doug Schoen, notes that the group's rules don't require a nomination until June. "If you can help us find a candidate," he says, "I'd be thrilled."