Americans Elect Bids to Transform Presidential Contests


'Tis the season for post-partisanship—again. Last week, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the patron saint of anti-Washington babble, flew to the nation's capital to accuse "both parties" of "promis[ing] their constituents the world" and giving them "debt and a sluggish economy and anemic job growth" instead. Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, predicted that "unless both parties change, then I think [a third party] is an inevitability." ("We aren't doing anything for the people," the Arizona Republican confessed.) Even Rick Perry got in on the act. "This is not the Democrats' country or the Republicans' country," he told a crowd of Iowans. "This is our country."

If such plague-on-both-your-houses rhetoric sends a thrill up your leg—and if you'd like to see some independent candidate trumpeting similar sentiments during next year's presidential contest—then Americans Elect is the 501(c)(4) organization for you. Founded in 2010 to "break the gridlock in Washington" and "open up the political process," as the official literature puts it, Americans Elect isn't affiliated with any particular politician, at least not yet. It doesn't have an ideology, or even a platform, really. That's because AE isn't a third party so much as a "second way" to nominate a president. "Given the level of frustration with the parties, running outside of the two-party system will be a huge asset in 2012, not a liability," insists Elliot Ackerman, the group's COO.

Here's how it's supposed to work. Americans Elect gathers the signatures required to get on the ballot in all 50 states. (So far, they've collected nearly 2 million—two thirds of their goal.) Meanwhile, the group's 200,000-plus "delegates" gather at, answering questions about their views, assembling heterodox policy platforms, and pledging to support their favorite politicians, military leaders, CEOs, college presidents, and ordinary citizens. As long as you're a registered voter, you're welcome to participate. In April 2012, successive rounds of online voting will winnow the sprawling field to six finalists. The six, assuming they all want in, will then have to select a running mate from outside their own party. Finally, in June, an Internet convention will choose a nominee to appear, nationwide, on Americans Elect's ballot line—and at the fall debates, provided he or she clears 15 percent in the polls. The founders claim they have enough cash to go all the way; they've raised $21 million so far, mostly from a handful of hedge funders who have ponied up more than $100,000 apiece. And they believe that new social-media technologies will allow candidates to "make their case directly to the American people [and] create a national presence" much faster than in previous cycles, as the group's CEO, Kahlil Byrd, puts it.

The plan is clever, and the timing is good. President Obama is saddled with near-fatal polling numbers. The Republican Party is so desperate for an alternative to Mitt Romney that they've spent a month entertaining the possibility of President Herman Cain. Even Congress hates Congress, and nine out of 10 Americans are "frustrated" with the state of politics. Nearly two thirds of the country wants an independent candidate to run for president.

There's only one problem: who, exactly, will lead the charge? Every noteworthy third-party presidential bid in modern American history has centered on a forceful, often familiar personality: Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader. They were potential presidents in search of a path to the White House. But this is the opposite: a path to the White House in search of a potential president. "A nonparty party isn't how you gain power," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "It just hasn't worked that way in American politics. You have to stand for something very clearly—not 'we don't like parties' in the abstract."

The group's leaders beg to differ. According to Ackerman, three kinds of candidates will soon emerge to vie for the Americans Elect nomination. The first will simply "come to the site and announce that they want to compete," he says, "because it's a $15 million deal to get on the ballot in all 50 states, and we remove that barrier." The second category will include "folks who are already running" for the Republican nomination and "see this as a great hedging strategy." Just knowing that there's a Plan B, according to Ackerman, will allow them to "run without having to tack hard to the right"; after losing the GOP nod, they can simply go the AE route. Finally, Ackerman expects to see a few "draft movements" in which "a bunch of Americans get excited about a particular candidate" and convince him or her to run. Names will begin to surface in December.

There are some early signs of life. Since April, Americans Elect has held more than 150 conversations with roughly 25 potential candidates, among them "sophisticated, longtime political players," some of whom "currently hold office," and the "CEO of a large publicly held company" who is "very interested in doing this," according to Darry Sragow, the group's political director. While Sragow won't name names—yet—delegates are already discussing their ideal candidates online. Among the favorites: Jon Stewart, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Al Gore, Al Franken, Herman Cain, Warren Buffett, Buddy Roemer, Hillary Clinton, Jon Huntsman, Howard Dean, Jim DeMint, Colin Powell, and Chris Christie.

The biggest prize would undoubtedly be Hillary, who won 18 million votes in 2008. Rarely a week passes without some pundit speculating about a Clinton-Obama rematch, but so far Hillary's response has been ice cold: the likelihood "is below zero," she said in September, adding that she was "out of politics and not interested in being drawn back into it by anybody." And her circle knows not to contradict her. Asked if a massive draft movement could change Clinton's thinking, Bob Zimmerman, one of her top 2008 fundraisers, says no way. "Hillary won't accept the draft," he predicts. "Americans Elect wouldn't sway her. I doubt it would persuade anyone. It's like fantasy baseball for politics." Even so, it would be intriguing to see how much support for Hillary might resurface in an AE draft. Such a sounding could convince her to rethink her plans for 2016, even as it aids the enemy: how can Obama unite the country, Republicans would chirp, when he can't even unite his own party?

Other White House wannabes sound more open to AE's pitch. Reached last week, Howard Dean seemed skeptical, but he did a double take when he heard about some of the strategists involved. "These are the kinds of people I'd sit down with in a heartbeat," he says. "It would be great to be president." Meanwhile, Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, admits he's already giving Americans Elect serious consideration—perhaps of necessity, since he's struggling to crack the 1 percent mark in the Republican race. "I have met with one of their representatives, and I support what they're trying to do," Roemer tells Newsweek. "I remain a proud Republican, but I do not dismiss the possibility that sometime, somewhere, someplace, this will be the new system."

The top target, however, may be Huntsman, who, with his business background, respectful demeanor, and relatively moderate record, best fits the mold of a "centrist" third-party candidate as imagined by "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" Beltway moderates who comprise the bulk of Americans Elect's leaders and donors. Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller insists that his boss "is a lifelong Republican and he's going to run for president as a Republican." But AE's brass seems to hope he'll change his mind. Last week, as the group's press secretary, Ileana Wachtel, was enumerating her organization's virtues, she just happened to mention his name. "This creates a new opportunity for, like, a Huntsman," she said. "You know, a guy who is not polling well but definitely has another avenue now to run."

Fantasy baseball aside, it's unlikely that any Americans Elect ticket will defy the laws of political gravity and win the White House next November. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, shows Ron Paul capturing 18 percent of the vote in a three-way race with Obama (44 percent) and Mitt Romney (32 percent), while Bloomberg hovers around 13 percent—impressive numbers, but not nearly impressive enough to actually become president. "Out of the blue, a third-party candidate doesn't have any better chance than I did when I ran in 1980," says John Anderson, "even though I got 6 million votes." Money, as always, is a problem: once a candidate secures the Americans Elect nomination in June, he's on his own financially, meaning he'll need to raise $100 million a month, without party support, just to keep up. "Unfortunately, the only people who can compete in a three-way race at this point are billionaires like Bloomberg," says Ralph Nader, who knows of what he speaks. What's more, AE's animating idea—that web-savvy voters are searching for a candidate who is more moderate than Mitt Romney or President Obama—seems flawed; if anything, political websites tend to attract liberals who think that Obama is too conservative and conservatives who think that Romney is too liberal.

The best outcome for Americans Elect, then, may simply be to make a lot of Democrats and Republicans angry—a distinct possibility, given that no one has won the presidency by more than 10 percentage points since 1984. By playing the spoiler, Americans Elect could force the parties to take its direct-democracy methods seriously—and perhaps tinker with their polarizing primary systems in the process. In fact, Ackerman believes that even a single-digit share of the vote could have a long-term impact. That's because ballot access now begets ballot access later: clear the 50-state hurdle this cycle, plus 2 to 5 percent of the presidential vote, and you'll be eligible to appear on most ballots in 2014 and 2016. In that scenario, if an extremist defeats a moderate in the primary—think Christine O'Donnell vs. Mike Castle in the 2010 Delaware Senate race—the moderate could simply run for the Americans Elect nomination and go on to clobber his wingnut rival in the general. "What Americans Elects turns into is a trust that removes the verb 'primaried' from our political lexicon," Ackerman says. "And that changes the incentive structure. Folks will no longer be rewarded for political intransigence." In other words, the "who" of Americans Elect may simply wind up being a means to an end. It's the "how" that could actually have legs.

With David A. Graham and McKay Coppins