April 10, 2012
Leaders of Americans Elect, the new non-partisan, online presidential voting process, insist they don’t want to be “spoilers” in the November presidential election – they’re out to win.
Amid signs that the well-heeled, politically savvy independent group will reach its goal of placing a presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50 states, Americans Elect officials have been quietly sounding out prominent lawmakers, business leaders and others in hopes of convincing a big name to challenge President Obama and Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, in the November election.
Organizers say that voter dissatisfaction with Obama and Romney and the negative tone of the campaign is so prevalent that the late entry of a viable independent “unity” candidate this summer could shake things up, just as billionaire industrialist Ross Perot transformed the 1992 presidential election with an anti-deficit, anti-Washington campaign that captured the nation’s fancy.
“The thing that the major parties are most worried about in terms of ‘spoiling’ is that their candidates will lose and it will spoil their grand plan for how they were going to have their side in control of Washington,” said Kahlil Byrd, Americans Elect’s chief executive officer. “An American Elect candidate will run to win, and the American people are very open and receptive, based on all the polling we have done and our experience to this unity ticket coming together.”
Cocky? Supremely confident? Delusional? It’s hard to say how best to describe this ambitious political enterprise. No independent or third party crusade for president has ever succeeded, dating all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose Party bid for a third term. And it’s hard to see how it would work now. Obama and Romney are waging the costliest campaigns in history, with Democratic and Republican forces and special interests lining up for a bitter media and organizational struggle this fall.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist, is dubious about how much an independent group can achieve at this point. “It is unlikely they will be able to get the attention needed for a third-party run,” he said. “Along with a big name, it also takes massive organization, funding and momentum to generate the type of interest in the battleground states. These are tangibles that can’t only be delivered through the Internet alone.”
But Americans Elect strategists disagree; they see an opening for a socially moderate, fiscally conservative centrist—not unlike former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A survey by Democratic pollster Douglas E. Schoen released in January and commissioned by the group showed that 66 percent of likely voters believe it’s important for an independent to run for president this year, and about a quarter say they are certain or very likely to vote for an independent presidential candidate. Nearly 3 million Americans have visited Americans Elect’s website since last July, and many of them have urged hundreds of politicians and business leaders to run under the Americans Elect banner.
Those who have been mentioned on the site or have expressed interest in running range from four failed aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination -- Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and Huntsman – to Bloomberg, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker.
“We are asking people to pick a president, not a party,” Byrd explained. “This is the beginning. We’re starting it at the presidential level this year, and we will be taking it to the state levels to pick a governor, not a party, or pick a senator, not a party. And one of the things we know is that the American people are way ahead of the leadership class on this.”
Traditionally, one of the biggest barriers to independent or third party campaigns has been the highly restrictive ballot access laws. Each state has different requirements for the number of signatures on petitions and how they should be gathered. Perot managed to appear on every state ballot in 1992 in challenging Republican president George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, but that was the result of far-flung draft efforts as well as Perot’s organizational spadework.
Americans Elect, the brain child of multi-millionaire Peter Ackerman, a financier and founding chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., appears to be well on its way to matching Perot’s achievement. With $35 million in its coffers, including $5 million of seed money from Ackerman, organizers are close to gathering the nearly 3 million signatures they need to qualify their ticket in every state in the union.
“There's a fair amount of money behind Americans Elect, and their bipartisan ticket idea appeals to a large slice of the media,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political expert. “Most important, the group seems to be gaining access to the ballot in most and maybe all states. That is critical. But so is the ticket.”
So far, Americans elect has qualified to appear on the ballot in 21 states, including: Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming. They are close to having ten other states sign off on their petitions, and plan to have all 50 states covered by August.
California was the heaviest lift for the group because of the requirement that it collect a staggering 1.6 million signatures. In Maine, the group filed nearly 32,000 signatures last month that had to be obtained from unaffiliated registered voters at municipal caucuses in each of the state’s 16 counties.
“I'll believe it's an attractive ticket when I see it,” Sabato added. “Anyone who is put on it--or even runs--may be signing away their partisan future. Most big names won't run in the end.”
Walker, the former GAO head and founder of the Comeback America Initiative, a fiscal reform advocacy group, said that while he is not interested in seeking the nomination, he believes an independent ticket focused on the deficit and the need to end political gridlock in Washington could have a significant impact on the course of the general election campaign.
“I believe our current system is broken, that we have a republic that is not representative of or responsive to the public,” Walker said yesterday. “Americans Elect represents more choice and competition, and I think that’s a good thing.” (Walker’s group is funded by Peter G. Peterson, who also finances the Fiscal Times.)
Ackerman and his team have quietly briefed and sounded out more than 100 current and former governors, senators, business leaders, college presidents and others, hoping to assemble a serious short list of Republican and Democratic bigwigs who would be prepared to jump into the presidential race this summer.
“I’ll say that we are one major decision away from a significant American changing the presidential campaign process forever,” Byrd said. “We don’t want to be the ones to push out people but I can say there are five or six people who could run a national campaign who are thinking about this.”
Americans Elect is an anomaly in third party or independent politics because it is not a political party per se but a ballot-access organization with the aim of recruiting millions of Americans to help nominate a bipartisan ticket that offers alternative views to the two major political parties. It’s an extension of the Unity08 political reform movement that sought to offer all voters direct engagement in politics by ranking the most crucial issues facing the country and engaging in an on-line secure vote to nominate a bipartisan ticket to challenge the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Ackerman has assembled an eclectic brain trust of strategists and advisers, including Schoen, who was former president Bill Clinton’s pollster; Mark McKinnon, an adviser to former President George W. Bush, former Republican New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, John H. Burbank III, chief investment officer for Passport Capital LLC who has donated about $2 million to the cause, and Joshua S. Levine, the chief technology officer and the former operations officer for E*Trade. Byrd is a former communications director for Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.