Nobody for President

The inevitable, glorious, $35 million failure of Americans Elect.

Michael Bloomberg.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The founders of Americans Elect had a dream: A 50-state presidential campaign that would upend, smash, destroy the two-party system. Today, these founders admitted that it wouldn’t work. No presidential candidate had survived the first round of the online primary. At least $35 million had been spent on absolutely nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. We have three new tips for the next coalition of enlightened people who want to save American democracy.

1) Do not launch by telling the New York Times you’ve got “serious hedge fund” money.

2 ) Do not rent “swank offices a stone’s throw from the White House.” (Avoiding the serious hedge fund money could probably help with this.)

3 ) Don’t confuse the good intentions of Tom Friedman with an idea that makes sense.

Just how badly have they failed? To survive the primary, a candidate needed at least 10,000 supporters, 1,000 each from 10 states. Americans Elect claimed to have 420,000 or so such supporters. But Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor turned Occupy sympathizer, had surged to the top of the pack with around 6,000 declared supporters—total.

When I reached him on Tuesday, Roemer was doing his clap-for-Tinkerbell best for Americans Elect. “They aren’t giving up,” he told me. “They will decide Thursday from what I’m told. They can’t get rid of me that easily, man!”

Sure, but what if they disappear? The Americans Elect die-off comes just over four years after the great Unity08 collapse. Both organizations promised red-blue bipartisan-détente tickets. Both offered the chance to be “founding delegates” from the comfort of your home. Peter Ackerman, a Unity08 veteran, attempted to correct the funding problems that plagued Unity08 by putting $8 million into Americans Elect. The results: ballot access in 26 states, a South by Southwest Interactive award, and bupkis.

Americans Elect can spin and prep for its latest delay (the May 15 candidate deadline used to be an April deadline), but we know that it’s failed, and we know why.

Pointless secrecy: Our two dominant political parties are easy to hate, but we know certain things about them. We know their donors. We know their local leaders. If we spend the time, we can meet their local precinct captains and delegates. They’re awful, but at least they’re obvious.

Americans Elect wasn’t. They would tell you that they were well-funded—rich enough to support more than 140 staffers in the D.C. office. But they wouldn’t tell you where the non-Ackerman money came from to fund this 501(c)(4). In a December conference call, Americans Elect strategist Darry Sragow explained that donors had to stay secret or they wouldn’t be safe.* “In this country, we don’t use Molotov cocktails literally,” he said. “We use them figuratively.” The donors would reveal themselves after they won the election. Really, this was what he said. Jim Cook, a reporter for Irregular Times, signed up as an Americans Elect delegate early on and published item after item about how the group bent its own rules by keeping them obscure. When I first encountered an Americans Elect petitioner, on primary day in New Hampshire, she politely rebuffed my questions—such as, “Who are you?”—and told voters only that she was putting “more choice” on the ballot. Idealism is tough enough already—tougher if you’re not an idealist.

The imaginary center: Americans Elect hyped a 2011 Pew study in which 37 percent of voters—enough to win a three-way election!—called themselves independent. They hyped a Reason Foundation poll that found 89 percent of independents ready to vote third party. Do the math. Their time had come.

But electoral politics run on a different kind of math, a kind that makes no sense. As John Sides has been pointing out for years, the vast, vast majority of people who tell pollsters or voting registrars that they’re “independent” are actually deeply partisan. Historically, when a third party’s won double-digit support, it’s been explicitly right-wing (George Wallace 1968) or explicitly left-wing (Eugene Debs 1912). Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, the one that every modern third party promises to copy, was ideological as all hell on a few issues—deficit reduction and trade, mostly.

Americans Elect’s ideology was goopier than week-old pudding. Take a gander at the questionnaire filled out by Michealene Risley, currently running third in the A.E. “primary.” She picked most of the mushy-middle options allowed by A.E. On foreign policy: “The US should listen to other countries more often than not.” On immigration: “Most illegal immigrants should be able to stay in the US, with some exceptions.” These are arguments you actually have out, not points you concede at the start of an election.

The wrong problem: Sure, Americans Elect had a point: Washington isn’t working terribly well. This is what Mitt Romney says. This is also what Barack Obama says. A.E.’s leadership got attention by floating the names of popular politicians (Hillary Clinton) and popular-among-the-media politicians (Jon Huntsman) and implying that they could fix it. “[Obama] can’t govern with control of the House and control of the Senate,” groaned Ackerman in an interview with the New Republic’s skeptical Alec MacGillis.*

Sometimes a wealthy person says something that makes you wonder how people ever trusted him with money. Obama had “control” of the Senate—the 60 votes needed to beat a filibuster—from September 2009 to January 2010. If you don’t realize how the delayed seating of Al Franken or the illness of Ted Kennedy or the victory of Scott Brown changed things, you don’t know how the government works. You don’t break the power of the parties by running in a presidential election. You start with Congress. That’s what the conservative movement has done over 20-odd years, making it untenable to face primary voters if you cast moderate votes.

So, why not take that “serious hedge fund money” and go after House seats? “Americans Elect will be on the ballot in 2014,” said Kahlil Byrd in a December Meet the Press interview.* “It will be on the ballot in 2016.” Yes, they screwed up by pegging this to a presidential race— they’ll gain none of the automatic ballot-access benefits you get if you field a candidate—but what could $35 million do in a few House races? What could it do for a group like FairVote, with an annual budget about one-70th the size of Americans Elect’s? Will it take another $8 million of Peter Ackerman’s money to smother the “third party president” fantasy? Hedge fund fortunes have been spent on stupider things.

Corrections, May 16, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last names of Americans Elect strategist Darry Sragow (return to the corrected sentence), New Republic writer Alec MacGillis (return to the corrected sentence), and Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd (return to the corrected sentence).