Politics

05.01.12

Peter Ackerman of Americans Elect Is Tired of Politics As Usual

The Daily Beast’s John Avlon talks to the founder of the group aiming to shake up the Dem-GOP duopoly.

There will be an alternative to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this fall: A bipartisan ticket chosen in an open online convention that begins May 15, courtesy of the organization Americans Elect and its founder and chief funder, Peter Ackerman.

It is an audacious if untested challenge to the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties, delivered by the somewhat reclusive and controversial multimillionaire who has avoided talking to the press—until now, when he agreed to sit down with The Daily Beast.

Before entering the political realm, Ackerman established a record as a serial entrepreneur, including a stint as director of international capital markets at the scandal-plagued 80s firm Drexel Burnham, sojourns as chairman of Freedom House and the Fletcher School (where he focused on the study of nonviolent revolution) as well as funding the online grocer Fresh Direct. “Everything I have ever been involved with, either in business or in international affairs,” Ackerman says, “has shown that healthy competition is ultimately of benefit to everybody.”

Ackerman’s dream now is to extend competition and new technology to the process of electing a president—what might be considered the ultimate nonviolent revolution.

“Americans Elect isn’t a third party, it’s a second process,” he says, kicking back casually in the Daily Beast offices, wearing a sweater and khakis. The process will commence this month with a candidate ultimately selected in June via an online convention in which any registered American voter can participate.

That candidate and his or her running mate—who must be a member of a different political party—will be immediately greeted with a ballot line in all 50 states. (The group has already secured lines in 26 states, including California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, and is on track to line up the remaining 24—fulfilling the time- and money-consuming task the big parties have traditionally handled for their respective candidates, and that have effectively deterred outsiders from launching credible runs.) As with Ross Perot in 1992, if the candidate exceeds 15% in the polls, they will participate in the presidential debates, earning vastly valuable free television time and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the two big parties’ picks.

“We cleared the underbrush of all the anticompetitive elements that are co-designed by the two parties to make sure you don’t get on the ballot,” Ackerman says. “We’ve created a new way for a candidate to run independently of the two parties.”

More than 415,000 people have signed up online to serve as Americans Elect delegates to date. The technology powering the organization won the coveted People’s Choice award at South by Southwest, which was won by Groupon the year before. On the money front, the organization has raised more than $35 million from 7,000 donors, including 40 who have given more than $10,000. The largest donor of all, clocking in at $8 million, is Ackerman himself.

His idea, though, has met a rocky transition from insight to execution. Americans Elect has flown under the radar because it has so far failed to attract a prominent candidate, despite conducting what Ackerman describes as 100 confidential briefings to potential candidates ranging from senators and governors to university presidents and CEOs. Independent New York City mayor and billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg was a prominent name initially bandied about, along with fantasies about an Erskine Bowles-Alan Simpson ticket that would reunite the bipartisan pair that headed President Obama’s much-lauded National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

“We’ve created a new way for a candidate to run independently of the two parties.”

Instead, the highest profile declared candidate for the Americans Elect nod is former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who earlier this year launched a DOA bid for the Republican nomination, admirably if quixotically focused on campaign-finance reform. Online forums have brought up names ranging from Ron Paul to Stephen Colbert. The most serious name being actively drafted at the moment is former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker.

“Candidates are fearful of sacrificing their status with one party or the other,” said Ackerman, who admits to being surprised at the difficulty in finding a credible candidate. “But I understand it. After all this is a completely new thing.” But Ackerman says he’s not deterred at his troubles so far recruiting a big name.

“Isn’t it amazing that we can speak to serious people as late as April or May and they can mount a serious campaign because we’ve given them ballot access? This is the real innovation,” he says. “No. 1, you get rid of all the ridiculous friction costs to your family and everybody else by having to run for the last two years. No. 2, you can run authentically without having to go to the edges. If you're the right person, you can get through this process and run for five months, get the recognition you need, be in the debates, make your impression, and win.”

That is, of course, the rosiest of scenarios. The organization has its share of critics and cynics who accuse the group of being little more than a plutocrat-backed attempt to short-circuit the primary process. Recent moves, like starting to repay seed donors (including Ackerman) from new funds raised have stirred accusations that early backers are in effect getting their money out —an action Ackerman said is being taken to ensure that no one accuses the ultimate candidate of being beholden to big donors. “We thought it was sort of a cool idea to structure it as a loan, so if people were upset that [big donors] can have access or influence, well, small donors can take them out,” Ackerman explains with some frustration. “That can be reinterpreted as ‘Oh, you’re having the small guys fund out the big guys.’ You can’t win for losing.”

The Obama and Romney camps have likewise privately expressed concerns that an Americans Elect ticket could serve as a spoiler, catapulting one of the major-party officeholders into office with less than majority support. And in the unlikely but not impossible scenario that no candidate reached 270 electoral votes, the Americans Elect candidate could be in the surreal position of effectively determining the next president, subject to negotiations Ackerman imagines would be about Obama and Romney’s willingness to appoint a bipartisan cabinet and embrace a debt-reduction plan.

Even some early supporters despair that the effort has failed to capture public imagination despite ample examples of dysfunction and division from the two parties, and self-identified independents hitting a record-high 40% of the electorate. This problem might that re-election efforts tend to be referendums on the incumbent rather than the kind of open race where a third ticket could make a real difference. Perot in 1992 was an exception to that rule. He didn’t win, but he helped refocus Washington’s policies on deficit reduction.

Americans Elect is facing candidate-recruitment crunch time, and Ackerman is starting to talk longer-term, imagining what an open ballot line in 50 states could achieve between 2012 and 2016.

“We have this motto: ‘Pick a President, not a Party.’ There’s no reason why we couldn’t say ‘pick a governor,’ ‘pick a senator,’ ‘pick a congressman’ and not a party,’” Ackerman says. “The whole idea is to create a coterie of leaders that are not operating under a party structure. Our Constitution never said ‘you’ve got representative government, but you can only pick people that the two parties consent to have you choose from.’”

The bottom line: Americans Elect is a bold idea that might be slightly ahead of its time. But it is a direct attempt to address the polarization compounded by the primaries, offering an accessible alternative. There are self-interested and cynical reasons for people in Washington wanting to see it fail. But if the problems of hyperpartisanship concern you, their effort is at the least worth your attention. After all, a little more competition never hurt anyone—except the people trying to defend the status quo.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that 1992, when President George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, was an open presidential race.