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09.29.11

2012’s New Contenders

Americans Elect could radically change the presidential ballot for the better. John Avlon has an exclusive look at their operating rules.

We are living in a “pox-on-both-your-houses” moment. Congressional approval is at an all-time low. More than 40 percent of Americans believe that both Republican and Democrat policies are moving the country in the wrong direction, while Tea Party approval has sunk to the mid-20s. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama, even Republicans acknowledge the weakness of their 2012 field—giving rise to persistent fantasies about a Chris Christie candidacy. In reaction to D.C.’s division and dysfunction, a record number of Americans now identify as independent voters while a majority says it’s time for a third party.

We are a country that innovates its way out of problems. And there is an innovative alternative emerging. It’s called Americans Elect and it promises to hold an open online presidential nomination contest in June of 2012 and then put a bipartisan presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50 states. It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Billing itself as “not a third party, but a second process,” I wrote about this organization first back in July. It is currently on the ballot in eight states, including the newly announced, electoral-college-rich additions of Florida and Michigan, with 1.6 million signatures in California due to be officially certified within weeks.

Now, they are releasing the rules of their revolutionary online nominating convention exclusively to The Daily Beast.

This new process would allow candidates to bypass the traditional closed partisan primary process and enable them to enter the presidential race as late as next summer. It could be a game changer.

One understandably skeptical response to this vision of an online convention is to imagine all the ways it could be hijacked by activist groups or special interests. The checks and balances set out in the new rules should calm at least some concerns.

Any registered voter can participate in the process. To date, 110,000 people have signed up online to be Americans Elect delegates—more than 10 times the number of delegates who participate in the Republican and Democratic conventions combined.

Any potential candidate with a professional background commensurate with the past 44 presidents—governors, senators, congressmen, Cabinet secretaries, flag-rank military officers, CEOs, or college presidents—would automatically qualify if they received 10,000 online clicks of support.

Any other citizen would be allowed to petition to put their name forward, providing they could accumulate at least 100,000 on-line support clicks—including a minimum of 10,000 supporters from 10 states—to determine broad-based support.

Candidates could be drafted or declare their intention to run outright. Beginning by early May 2012 (by which time the GOP nominee will likely be known), all candidates must have answered a set of core political and policy questions submitted by the delegates.

By mid-May after the initial qualifying ballots, candidates would need to announce a running mate—specifically, one from another political party—ensuring ideological diversity and offering the prospect of a national unity ticket.

In June, the top six tickets would face off in a series of online votes. If any ticket won an outright majority, they would become the nominee. If not, the top two vote-getting tickets would ultimately compete in a final run-off, with the independently certified winner announced no later than June 26, 2012—and then presented a secure place on the ballot in 45 states (the remaining five have summer filing requirements). And if they get at least 15 percent in subsequent polls, they’ll be standing side-by-side with President Obama and the GOP nominee in the fall debates.

But who would actually participate in such an untested process? “When you build it, they will come,” says Mark McKinnon, a former Bush and McCain campaign strategist and advisory board member of Americans Elect (as well as a fellow co-founder of the unrelated group No Labels and a Daily Beast contributor). “When people realize that they don’t have to hire lawyers and raise a bunch of money to get on the ballot, I think it’s going to look very attractive to some serious people. How about [Tom] Brokaw-[Condi] Rice for America?,” McKinnon says with a laugh. “It is gong to make us re-imagine democracy—and whether it’s something small or big, I think it’s the beginning of something important.”

A current GOP candidate like Jon Huntsman, who has been too independent-minded and non-ideological to gain traction in the Republican primaries to date, might be a natural candidate for Americans Elect. Candidates with crossover appeal who declined to run this year, like Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie, could also jump in late via Americans Elect. Some hard-core Hillary supporters who can’t seem to give up the ghost could try to use Americans Elect to draft their heroine (hint: it won’t work). Likewise, it might be an attractive last-ditch vehicle for Ron Paul-ites or the Tea Party, if Mitt Romney wins the nomination.

But the stated intention of Americans Elect is to recruit radical centrists from both parties. Among the possibilities: a Colin Powell-Mike Bloomberg (or vice-versa) executive ticket, a fiscal responsibility double bill of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, or a Sunshine Boys campaign composed of John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Current senators like Mark Warner, Joe Manchin, or Lisa Murkowski might be drafted alongside former senators like Evan Bayh, Chuck Hagel, Bill Bradley, or Bob Kerrey. Add some former governors into the mix, like Christie Todd Whitman or Bill Weld—or even a current governor combo, like Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo. And it doesn’t need to be composed of just professional politicos: There are military leaders like Robert Gates; media figures like Joe Scarborough; business leaders like FedEx founder Fred Smith or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Any or all could be considered credible candidates.

Elliot Ackerman, the COO of Americans Elect and a former Marine, whose father Peter—a founder of Fresh Direct—has been a driving financial force behind the effort, says, “We’re trying to provide a political space for people who aren’t tethered to the far-right or far-left to run authentically. And that’s a space which isn’t available in the current process or political discourse.”

“When you build it, they will come,” says Mark McKinnon, a former Bush and McCain campaign strategist.

There’s an additional factor that could catapult Americans Elect to the forefront of the 2012 debate—even if they don’t win outright. In the event that no single candidate gets to the required 270 electoral votes, Americans Elect delegates could essentially function as the tie-breaker, quickly convening to decide who to throw their support to—and possibly selecting the presidential candidate from one party and the vice-president from another. This would stop the election from being thrown to the House of Representatives and could create, in effect, the first coalition government in U.S. history.

To be sure, there’s plenty of skepticism and suspicion surrounding the effort. New York magazine’s Frank Rich recently joined the chorus of liberal voices like Paul Krugman who essentially deny the existence of the vital center in American politics and dismiss the nearly 40 percent of Americans who identify as independents as an incoherent mass signifying nothing. Their 2012 prescription is for President Obama to ignore this plurality of voters and meet the GOP’s polarization with equal and opposite polarization from the left. It offers a stratified vision of politics as something like a war and sees Americans Elect as a threat to their preferred ideological battle lines.

“It’s just pattern recognition and conventional thinking that an alternative can’t happen—but at the end of the day, this is going to happen,” concludes McKinnon. “There will be an Americans Elect unity ticket on the ballot next fall and it’s going to shake things up and offer an element of surprise and conflict which will attract the attention of voters and the media. It’s going to get interesting.”