The deadline for Americans Elect is here and they still don’t have a candidate.
This failure threatens to kill the effort to field a bipartisan third ticket for president before it ever really began—despite $35 million spent and 420,000 people signed up to serve as online delegates.
But supporters and advisers are planning to soldier on, extending the deadline and talking to delegates about possibly opening the process further to encourage greater participation.
“As of today, no candidate has reached the national support threshold required to enter the ‘Americans Elect Online Convention’ this June. Because of this, under the rules that AE delegates ratified, the primary process would end today,” organizers said in a statement released at midnight on the 15th. “There is, however, an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate and ticket emerge from this process.”
And so the process will go on, at least for a little while longer.
The current highest vote-getter among declared candidates in the online draft process is former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, with just over 5,900 delegates supporting his efforts, followed by Rocky Anderson, a former mayor of Salt Lake City. To look at it another way, more than 95 percent of the people who signed up to be a delegate to Americans Elect have declined to select a candidate among the relatively slim pickings. This is not a vote of confidence—either in the candidates or the process.
Late last week, leaders at the well-funded insurgent organization were planning to pull the plug entirely on this year’s effort. There was talk of focusing instead on building the organization at the local level going forward, following a model like Angus King’s independent Senate campaign in Maine. But this abandonment would be devastating to overall efforts that aim to inject increased independence and competition into the political process, effectively wasting the 2.5 million signatures the group collected to get on the ballot in 26 states to date.
After all, the real prize this time around was not necessarily winning the White House but establishing a credible alternative process for electing a president and securing a ballot line for nonpartisan reformers for 2014 and 2016.
“The worst thing would be for people to look at a failure to field a candidate and conclude that there is no appetite for this kind of change, which would be just completely wrong,” argues Mark McKinnon, former chief strategist for the Bush campaign, a fellow Daily Beast columnist, and a member of the Americans Elect advisory board. “I think part of the issue is that politics have become so ugly that it is simply difficult to attract good people to participate,” McKinnon adds. “And who can blame them?”
There is a range of explanations for why Americans Elect fell so far short of its nomination goals.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the basic fact of this particular election cycle—when a president is running for reelection, it tends to be a referendum. Third-party candidacies do best when there is not an incumbent on the ballot or after an extended period of one-party rule with weak opposition.
The endurance of the Republican primary likewise provided plenty of polarizing, and pandering moments were evidence why an alternative is badly needed. But by the time Mitt Romney secured the nomination, there was relatively little time for another candidate to make their case, and less urgency than if Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich were the nominee.
Finally, the organization’s emphasis on ballot security proved to be an unexpected barrier to entry. The technology powering the online draft effort won South by Southwest’s People’s Choice Award, won by Groupon last year. It was designed by the team that built the E*Trade platform. It was so secure in terms of ensuring “one person one vote” that actually signing up to serve as a delegate and support a candidate took several steps and more than 10 minutes. In an era of slacktivists used to ‘liking’ something and quickly moving on, this was a serious hurdle.
Given the expectations for this effort, which has been more than two years in the making, the lack of high-profile candidates and online delegate conversion has been disappointing. But the decision to at least consider a path forward with a bipartisan ticket in 2012 reflects the enthusiasms of the delegates and volunteers. The key sensitivity inside the organization seems to be a reluctance to change the stated rules without full support from the online community, for fear of seeming self-serving and cynical.
“Every step of the way, AE has conferred with its community before making major decisions,” the organization said in its midnight statement. “We will do the same this week before determining next steps for the immediate future. AE will announce the results of these conversations on Thursday, May 17th” after the board of advisers speaks on Wednesday and, a group that includes former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, former director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig, Judge William Webster, and former U.S. comptroller general David Walker.
One scenario would be to let the existing leading candidates—most notably Buddy Roemer—have a little more time to build support and show the potential for a viable candidacy, at least in terms of hitting the 15 percent support necessary to qualify for the fall presidential debates. Roemer’s supporters are quick to point out that a recent Democracy Corps poll (PDF) found the candidate already had 7 percent support with virtually no mainstream press to date. When his affable get-the-money-out-of-politics message reaches a wider audience, they reason, his support will only go up.
Efforts to draft deficit hawk David Walker to serve as Roemer’s VP nominee—or vice versa—have likewise been gaining modest support in recent weeks. Walker told me that he would not make any decision about participating on a ticket until he was confronted with something concrete, but added that delaying the deadline seemed to make sense for now. “You’ve got to have credible qualification requirements,” Walker said. “And whether it’s Buddy Roemer or anybody else, the real question is can you meet those requirements and do you think you can qualify for the debates. If you think you can, then it’s worthwhile.”
Americans Elect may be an idea ahead of its time, but the money and effort spent to date clearing the hurdles placed in the way of independent candidacies—for president or any other office—should not be wasted. There is a deep need for increased constructive competition in our polarized political system. This effort is bigger than Americans Elect, but they have invested heavily in being part of the solution, and whatever comes next, the ironclad rule that you can’t beat something with nothing still applies. So here’s hoping that a credible balanced ticket is put forward if only as a placeholder for the ballot lines they worked so hard to secure and that future reform efforts are able to grow out of this flawed but well-intentioned and innovative endeavor.
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.