Can Well-Heeled Insiders Create a Populist Third-Party Sensation?

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

A protest in front of the U.S. Capitol, 2010

In a city that thrives on power, being attacked is often a sign that you have some. So in mid-December, when President Obama’s advisers took aim at Americans Elect, a bipartisan clutch of political elites planning to bankroll a third candidate in the 2012 presidential election, the group’s members reacted with dramatized indignation that couldn’t quite disguise their glee. “On the left, the Democrats are worried,” says Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton’s former pollster and a frequent Obama critic. “On the right, the Republicans are worried. That tells us we are doing something right.”

What Americans Elect has done is fashion a new twist to the quadrennial quest for a credible third-party contender. Instead of an outside party, it has crafted a parallel nominating process: a nonpartisan online convention. Anyone with a valid ID and an Internet hookup is eligible to become a “delegate,” and candidates can either register by completing a questionnaire or be drafted by popular support. Through a series of online ballots, the slate of contenders will be whittled down to six in April, and then to a single winner in June. In keeping with the group’s shibboleths, the nominee must tap a member of a different party as a running mate, forming a “unity ticket” that will occupy the chasm in the political center.

For a political start-up, Americans Elect has Establishment-grade cash and credentials. Its roster is dotted with veterans of Washington warfare, both Democrats and Republicans, who have grown weary of both parties’ penchant for pandering to their fringes. Schoen recently authored a column that cast Occupy Wall Street as a “radical” uprising that was “dangerously out of touch” with American values. Another adviser, Mark McKinnon, served as George W. Bush’s media strategist but declined to reprise the role in 2008 out of respect for Obama. Also on the group’s board are a battery of business executives; Dennis Blair, Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence; and Christine Todd Whitman, the moderate former Republican governor of New Jersey. A framed column by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which predicted that the group would do to politics “what Amazon.com did to books,” hangs in the hallway of its airy 10th-floor suite, from which you can glimpse a sliver of the White House three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Third-party candidates have played the part of presidential spoiler memorably in the past. Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, and Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes to stymie Al Gore in 2000. But with Washington gripped by gridlock, Americans Elect believes its model meets the demands of the political marketplace. “This year is going to be unique,” says CEO Kahlil Byrd, a Republican strategist who served a stint under Massachusetts’ Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, as well as a term on the Council of Foreign Relations. “People are very receptive to the idea of two people, perhaps from very different sides of the political aisle, coming together and putting down their natural instinct for partisanship to lift up the issues they’re concerned about.”

Americans Elect has amassed more than 75% of the 2.9 million signatures required to grace the ballot in all 50 states and mined its connections to net $22 million of the estimated $35 million needed to finance the experiment. Though nearly 5,000 people have chipped in so far, the bulk of the group’s war chest comes from about 50 wealthy donors. In a way, Americans Elect represents an unlikely alliance between clashing socioeconomic factions, with the 1% bulldozing the barriers to ballot access so that the 99% can pick a President — perhaps someone who hails from their own ranks, for a change.

Challengers to the two-party duopoly “are always somebody with the resources, like a [Michael] Bloomberg or a [Ross] Perot,” explains Elliot Ackerman, Americans Elect’s chief operating officer. “This is the first time those resources have been applied to having an open competition and trying to introduce additional choice into our politics.”

Candidates can begin submitting themselves for the Americans Elect nomination in January, but one has announced early: Buddy Roemer, the long-shot Republican hopeful whose lengthy political résumé seemingly became snared in the party’s spam filter. A former Democratic Congressman and Republican governor of Louisiana whose signature issue is campaign-finance reform, Roemer’s low name recognition and fundraising woes produced anemic poll numbers that in turn resulted in his exclusion (sometimes with dubious logic) from the GOP debates that have defined the tumultuous primary.

But since announcing his intention to seek the Americans Elect nomination in early December, Roemer has come to have reservations about the way the group does business. Formed in response to the depravity of U.S. politics, Americans Elect relies on what is widely seen as one of its worst aspects: secret money. Though it will be listed alongside other political parties on state ballots next fall, the group is organized as a social-welfare organization — devoted to promoting no particular candidate, ideology or issue — which allows it to preserve the anonymity of its donors. Some of them, like Ackerman’s father, a New York financier who forked over $5.5 million, have been forthright about their contributions. But the majority remain shrouded in secrecy. For Roemer, who caps donations to his campaign at $100 and won’t accept money from political action committees, the group’s financing structure has sown doubts about its intentions. “I might not be able to participate if the source of funding depends on the very special interests I am trying to force out of the room,” Roemer says.

American Elect says its use of anonymous giving is an effort to safeguard big-ticket donors, well-heeled and connected types who are fearful of retribution. But the explanation hasn’t mollified good-government advocates. “It’s absurd that this group says they want to change the way business is done and they’re attempting to run a candidate for President on the ballot in 50 states with secret money,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign-finance watchdog group Democracy 21. “If the candidate of Americans Elect were to play a key role in determining the outcome of the 2012 election using secret money to finance their candidate, that would be an extraordinary scandal.”

Its Web-based nominating process has raised additional questions. Though Americans can pay bills and swap stocks online, experts say online voting is susceptible to skulduggery. Recent attempts to test-drive Internet balloting went badly: in 2010, a team of white-hat hackers led by a computer scientist at the University of Michigan swiftly hijacked a Washington, D.C., board of elections practice ballot, changing votes, seizing personal information and broadcasting the Wolverines’ fight song to alert administrators of the breach. Were Americans Elect’s system to fall victim to a malicious infiltration, the perpetrators wouldn’t leave a calling card.

Skeptics are also wary of the powers the group has reserved for itself. The group’s bylaws entrust an appointed group of advisers — known as the “candidate-certification committee” — with deciding whether candidates who don’t automatically qualify for inclusion on the ballot are eligible for nomination. The committee’s decision can be vetoed by two-thirds of Americans Elect delegates, but the structure has sparked complaints that it is sinister — “über-democracy meets backroom bosses,” as Obama strategist David Axelrod put it to reporters on Dec. 13.

Americans Elect says these critiques emerged as the machinery of the political status quo rumbled to life to preserve its power. The group casts the option to bar certain candidates as a defense against the unfit or the frivolous, including those tempted to leverage the group for self-promotion. “Thousands of e-mails from folks urging me to seek the Americans Elect Presidential nomination,” Donald Trump bragged on Twitter the day after Axelrod assailed Americans Elect’s motivations. The group’s candidate benchmarks — holding elected office of a certain level, running a large company or university, or attaining flag rank in the military, for example — are low enough that most applicants, Trump included, would likely qualify automatically.

“The spin is that this is an effort to restrict the process. It’s quite the opposite. It’s putting structures in place so that we can have a serious yet open process,” says Darry Sragow, American Elect’s political director, who points to the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, in which the ballot was clotted with 135 candidates, including porn star Mary Carey and former child actor Gary Coleman, as an example of radical democracy run amok. A committee decision to bar a prospective candidate is subject to a veto by two-thirds of delegates. But the group is struggling to shake the suspicions that a group casting itself as a proponent of popular democracy intends to subvert it to install its own favored option.

It’s hard to predict the role Americans Elect might play in 2012 until the Republican primary wraps up and the group taps a nominee of its own. Americans Elect will not promote a candidate, but the group is briefing potential contenders about the process. Among the names that have surfaced are Michael Bloomberg, Jon Huntsman and Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. A socially moderate, business-friendly centrist might struggle to cleave a space between Obama and, say, Mitt Romney. Should Newt Gingrich capture the Republican nomination, the calculation could be different. Perhaps the most intriguing candidate might be Ron Paul, whose fervent passel of Web-savvy followers could flood the online ballot boxes. Whether the iconoclastic libertarian could settle on a running mate is another story.

Even the members of Americans Elect aren’t sure how the process will play out. “We are going to present the American people with a third candidate,” says Sragow. “If they decide that Americans Elect is somehow a process they don’t trust, they don’t have to vote for our candidate.” But trust is a commodity in short supply. And though Americans are weary with Washington and craving comity, a band of insiders backed by Wall Street money may not be the type of change voters have in mind.

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