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Americans Elect launches centrist third-party bid amid Washington dysfunction

Americans Elect, which is inviting the public to a virtual primary, faces daunting hurdles. But dissatisfaction with the partisan gridlock in Washington creates a favorable political climate.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2011

The website for Americans Elect invites voters to locate and draft candidates online who agree with their views.

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With the dysfunction of Washington on full display as the nation inches toward defaulting on its debt, a coalition of American centrists has launched a bold gambit to nominate a third-party ticket for the 2012 presidential election.

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Funded with at least $20 million, the majority from large, mostly unnamed donors, Americans Elect is vying to become the most serious third-party insurgency since industrialist H. Ross Perot nearly upended the 1992 presidential campaign.

And they're doing it in a decidedly 21st century way by creating an "open source" virtual primary in which the public is invited, via the Internet, to nominate a presidential ticket, ostensibly of moderates, and get the names on ballots in all 50 states.

Privately, political scientists say, some of the principals have debated a potential Gen. David Petraeus-Michael Bloomberg ticket as one possible outcome to challenge Obama-Biden and a potential Republican ticket such as Mitt Romney-Rick Perry. The group is also considering floating congressional candidates.

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The effort is a new twist on a long tradition in American politics of third-party insurgencies, including Mr. Perot in 1992, John Anderson in 1980, and George Wallace in 1968.

The hurdles Americans Elect faces are daunting. While Perot garnered nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, none of the other recent third-party bids managed to collar more than 9 percent. [Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of votes Perot received.]

Moreover, Americans Elect faces questions about its transparency, as well as the enduring problem of exciting moderates, scaling the ramparts of an entrenched two-party system, and raising enough money to take on the major party war chests, which, in Obama's case, ran to a record $745 million in the 2008 election.

Nevertheless, the political climate couldn't be riper for a serious third-party alternative, as dissatisfaction is soaring with a two-party system that appears to be dithering in the face of national financial crisis. A new ABC/Washington Post poll shows that 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the federal government, up 11 points from only a month before.

"Now that we've seen the '06, '08 and '10 elections suggesting a level of dissatisfaction with both parties, now crystallizing over the debt ceiling [vote], if there's ever been a moment in time when a third-party alternative could thrive, I'd say this is a pretty good one," says Mark Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.

But even if the odds have for 160 years been heavily stacked against third-party challenges, they do tend to have an impact, Mr. Hetherington says. "One thing that we do see when third-party activity takes place, turnout goes up, and a bunch of people get involved who send a real strong signal to Washington about what's important to them."


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