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.
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.
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."
Political scientists point to Ross Perot's folksy "get under the hood" campaign as a major influence on deficit reduction through the rest of the 1990s.
Americans Elect, which is applying in states as a political party but operates legally as a nonprofit 501(c) 4 social welfare organization.
"The only political philosophy we have is that people should be greater than parties," Elliot Ackerman, an Iraq War veteran and centrist who serves as the group's chief operating officer, told the Los Angeles Times.
The group has on its board former CIA chief William Webster, Republican strategist Mark McKinnon and pollster Doug Schoen. In many ways, it is taking a different route than the insurgent tea party movement, which used the Republican primaries as a crowbar to elect a batch of small government conservatives to hold the line on federal spending.
Americans Elect, on the other hand, is more formalized, intending to guide the direction of the country by direct participation as it seeks to build a new coalition and break the two-party monopoly that has dominated Washington since the demise of the Whigs in the mid-19th century.
But the group faces an uphill climb, to say the least. While Americans may rate their satisfaction with Congress at 20-year lows – a fact only highlighted by the current debt debacle – crashing the doors of the White House requires a level of sustained passion that may be difficult to muster from those not driven by more extreme and impassioned ideologies, whether on the right or left.
"You need to be able to demonstrate [as the tea party movement did] that there's a cost to politicians for failure to pay attentions to their concerns," says John Aldrich, a political science professor at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. "It's the tea party types and their peers on the left who have the intensity of preference that keeps them motivated. So that's going to be a problem for Americans Elect. Picture all of us militant moderates out there marching: 'We're marching for okay-ness.'"
Another problem is money, says Joe Tuman, a San Francisco State University political scientist. "You can get on all 50 ballots and maybe you attract the right people to run, but if you don't have the money for organization, consulting, advertising and marketing, logistics, advance people, message strategists – if you don't have that kind of infrastructure, it is very hard to compete and to be taken seriously," Mr. Tuman told the San Jose Mercury News this week.
So far, however, Americans Elect has taken the greatest heat for vowing to use the "open source" of the Internet, in which voters who sign up to become online "delegates" will choose candidates at a virtual convention next June, all while failing to disclose heavy-hitting donors.
Moreover, Americans Elect will use an appointed "Candidate Certification Committee" to – as Mr. Ackerman said on a recent press call – deal with "candidate qualification and making sure we have candidates who bridge the center of American public opinion." Critics say this means a possible ticket by fiat if its voters pick, for example, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R), the tea party doyenne and presidential aspirant from Minnesota.
"Having watched past third-party movements succeed in recruiting millions of supporters and then dash their hopes for democratic renewal on the rocks of stubborn and inflexible leadership, I still hope despite the odds that Americans Elect isn't about to do the same thing," writes Micah Sifry, the co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, who says he was approached last fall by Americans Elect staffers to help provide digital strategy for the project.
At worst, he adds, Americans Elect "will play an unpredictable role in national and state politics for years to come, all at the behest of a small group of decision-makers who already think they know what's best for the country."
But Americans Elect isn't daunted. County registrars in California began receiving 1.6 million signatures from the group on Thursday as part of a requirement to be included in the 2012 election. Largely under the radar, the group has already gained ballot access in Nevada, Alaska, Kansas and Arizona, is seeking certification in Michigan, Hawaii, Missouri and Florida, and plans to be on the ballots in 18 states by the end of the year.
"What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in," Mr. Friedman wrote recently. "Watch out."