The third-party pipe dream

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, I have come to bury Americans Elect, not to praise it.If you hadn’t heard about Americans Elect, don’t sweat it. The non-profit organization, which spent a whopping $35 million in a futile bid to find and promote an independent presidential candidate, declared itself dead last Thursday. Yet again, the pipe dream of a viable alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans has gone up in smoke.Supposedly, many people yearn for a potent independent candidate (or “third party,” the terms are often used interchangeably). But we rarely get one. (Remember Unity08 four years ago? No? Never mind.) Americans Elect was probably the most ambitious attempt to free us from our semi-dysfunctional duopoly, until it failed on a grand scale. It wrote the book on screwing up.Created by wealthy investor-philanthropist Peter Ackerman, Americans Elect was a high-tech venture, a unique concept that didn’t translate to the real world. Citizens would sign up as “delegates” for an online nominating convention. The group would get itself on the ballot in all 50 states. Popular independent-minded politicians would vie for the nomination. The nominee would be the candidate who garnered at least 10,000 online clicks (1000 clicks from each of 10 states) by the middle of May.Well, last week, the nomination deadline came and went. Nobody got 10,000 clicks. No popular independents came forward to vie for the honor. The top-vote getter, at 6000 clicks, was a former Louisiana governor, Buddy Roemer.So Americans Elect, rightly concluding that Buddy Roemer wouldn’t throw a scare into Barack Obama or Mitt Rommney since he couldn’t even dazzle the 420,000 online delegates, decided to pull the plug. The group had managed to get on the ballot in 29 states – yet it wound up without a candidate. This had to be the worst 2012 launch since the Disney film studio lost its shirt with John Carter.Seven reasons why Americans Elect didn’t work:1. It was strictly a top-down concept, whereas successful insurgencies tend to be bottom-up. It had a fancy Washington office, but nothing at the grass roots.2. It got things backward. “Third parties” tend to start with a charismatic candidate who then builds a vehicle for his ambitions – as was the case with Ross Perot in 1992, George Wallace in 1968, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Americans Elect built the vehicle first and then went in search of a driver.3. It operated on the assumption that Americans would coalesce behind a “centrist” independent. But what the heck is a “centrist,” anyway? Somebody who would curb Social Security and Medicare entitlements in order to balance the books long term? (Good luck winning senior voters with that one.) Somebody who would tell the voters what they don’t want to hear, about the need to raise taxes in order to balance the books? (Voters can’t handle the truth.)4. It mistakenly believed that middle-of-the-roaders were just as impassioned as the Democratic and Republican partisans. By definition, it’s the partisans who pay serious attention to politics early in the campaign year. The folks in the middle don’t tend to pay serious attention until autumn. In other words, centrist activism is a contradiction in terms.5. It offered potential candidates a snazzy vehicle for a presidential bid – with one huge caveat: it didn’t intend to help raise any money for the autumn independent campaign. The lucky nominee would’ve needed to troll for dollars on his own. Which means that whoever succeeded in getting those 10,000 clicks by mid-May would’ve had only four months to raise the necessary money to be competitive with Obama and Romney. Minimum amount? Probably half a billion bucks. No wonder all the big names passed.6. It overlooked the retribution factor. Potential candidates with ties to the two major parties feared that if they ran and lost, they would be treated forevermore as dead people by the political establishment. On the risk and reward scale, the former outweighed the latter.7. It embarrassed itself with some bad PR. This supposedly high-road reform group was financed by secret donors. One does not need a PhD to see the fundamental contradiction. A new reform venture really can’t afford to take hits in the press for cloaking its contributors in secrecy, but that’s what happened. Peter Ackerman donated $8 million, but we couldn’t find out who put up the other $27 million because American Elect took advantage of a tax-code loophole that allows “social welfare” groups to keep their donors confidential. One of Karl Rove’s outfits, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, is working that very same loophole. A reform group can’t credibly claim the high road when it shares the low road with Karl Rove.But if you still crave a third candidate, don’t despair. We’re just three years away from the next scheduled boomlet for Michael Bloomberg.——-  Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal