In the last month or so, there has been a somewhat low-key launch of an independent presidential campaign that is distinguished from previous efforts by the fact that it is not starting with a candidate like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader. Rather, Americans Elect starts with the premise that millions of Americans are deeply disillusioned with our current parties and candidates.
It proposes to define its platform by soliciting the views of those who respond to the website, and to select its candidates for President and Vice President by secure on-line voting by its members. Tom Friedman called attention to it in a recent column.
So, is this the essence of 21st century democracy? Read on.
A trip to the website reveals that they do solicit responses to a series of poll-like questions on public policy issues, which are then tabulated to reveal the respondent’s “political colors,” and permit comparison with the aggregate of previous responses. It appears that most of those who have responded so far are to the liberal side of the spectrum. This suggests that Americans Elect has the potential to become a liberal third party movement that could take votes from Obama in 2012.
The website reveals nothing about the people behind Americans Elect, or its funding sources (beyond the vague note that they have received start-up loans from generous donors who will in due course be repaid). For that information we need to go elsewhere. Irregular Times is a website that has been providing extensive information on Americans Elect and its predecessor, Unity 08, since at least 2006. Its information is collected here.
What is clear is that the funding sources are largely drawn from the financial industry, and include, most prominently, Peter G. Peterson (former Commerce Secretary and adviser to President Nixon, former Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and currently a major advocate of achieving fiscal soundness by restructuring Social Security and other entitlements). The preponderance of political affiliations (as measured by donations) of Americans Elect’s big donors are Republican.
Disillusioned liberals ought to know that if this effort takes off, it is very likely to siphon votes away from Obama and facilitate a complete Republican takeover of the federal government. And this outcome may well be what some of the big donors have in mind. And as the Irregular Times site makes clear, the Board of Directors of Americans Elect has ultimate control over who gets to be a delegate and what the positions of the organization will be. The plan seems to be to capture at least one state’s electoral votes and use that leverage to extract concessions if neither major party candidates wins a majority of electoral votes.
Normally, third party candidates can throw a state to one side or the other, but they rarely win states outright. The campaign of 1948 is instructive: there were two minor party candidates, Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Wallace and Thurmond received almost identical popular vote totals, but only Thurmond won electoral votes, in the Deep South. Wallace’s vote was more widely distributed, so he won no electoral votes. Americans Elect is more likely to have a broad distribution, like Wallace, rather than a regional concentration, like Thurmond. Thus its endgame strategy is unlikely to pan out.
Third party campaigns for the presidency have a history of consistent failure to win that office (sole exception, Abraham Lincoln in 1860), and of facilitating victory by the forces most opposed to the views of the third party’s supporters. Recent examples include Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (allowing Nixon to defeat Humphrey), John Anderson in 1980 (allowing Reagan to beat Carter), Ross Perot in 1992 (allowing Clinton to beat Bush I), and Ralph Nader in 2000 (allowing Bush II to beat Gore).
Moreover, very few third party campaigns go beyond the presidential race to run candidates for Congress or state office. This is a fatal weakness in our system of checks and balances, where the President can get nothing done without cooperation from Congress. Americans Elect says it intends to nominate legislative candidates, but only after the presidential election of 2012.
However unhappy we may be about the current lamentable state of American politics, Americans Elect is more symptom than cure.