Ross Perot, US presidential candidate of the Refor
John G. Mabanglo  /  AFP/Getty Images
Maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996, but won no electoral votes.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/10/2011 9:21:34 AM ET 2011-10-10T13:21:34

Are you fed up with stale, two-party electoral warfare? How about a do-it-yourself presidential nominee?

A group called Americans Elect aims to put its candidate on the ballot in 2012, but it’s a movement apparently without any economic, foreign policy or social agenda and with no charismatic contenders so far.

Americans Elect’s sole principle is that the two-party system is flawed and that voters ought to “have an open competition that is untethered from the Republican or Democratic parties,” as Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer put it.

He said the group’s nominating process is “not tethered to the ideology of the far right or the far left, so we can try to get past some of the gridlock that exists right now in Washington, D.C.”

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The presidential candidate whom the group will nominate or draft through its Internet-based selection process could be Texas Rep. Ron Paul, or President Barack Obama, or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or perhaps someone further outside the mainstream.

Video: GOP Debate Preview (on this page)

Any registered voter can be a delegate and can vote in the group’s multistage balloting process, starting next April, and take part in its convention. Because it is using a web-based “convention” the delegates won’t be crowding into hotel rooms in Denver or Miami Beach.

Although the group’s bylaws say no quorum is required to hold its convention, Ackerman said Americans Elect has already signed up 110,000 delegates.

To promote bipartisan comity, the group will require that its presidential nominee run with a vice presidential candidate of a different party, which conjures up thoughts of unlikely Obama-Boehner 2012 bumper stickers.

Bipartisan array of backers
The people who are running and advising Americans Elect include Peter Ackerman, head of Rockport Capital, a private investment firm and chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Doug Schoen, former pollster for Bloomberg and for President Bill Clinton, and Mark McKinnon, the media guru for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 Republican primary campaign and for President George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

Video: Panel: Romney and Mormonism (on this page)

One of the advisors to the group, investor Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, has donated $5,000 to Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s political action committee. The group’s legal counsel, Daniel Winslow, a Republican state legislator from Massachusetts, has given $1,500 to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Some observers speculate that the group could be a Trojan horse, as was the Reform Party in 1996 for Ross Perot. But the group denies this.

“One thing I can tell you is that there is no Perot on the horizon here. I’m enough on the inside to know that this is not wired for any individual,” said one of Americans Elect’s advisors, Larry Diamond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

Diamond, who supported Obama in 2008, said he’s not close to the discussions that Americans Elect’s leadership has been having with potential candidates, but “I can tell you without naming names that there have been very prominent people whose names would be instantly  recognizable who at least have had conversations.”

He added, “You can’t spend 20 seconds talking about an independent and depolarizing entry into the 2012 presidential race without considering the name of Michael Bloomberg. But Bloomberg does keep saying that he’s not going to run and I take him at his word ... It’s unlikely this ticket is going to win — let’s face it — and I don’t think he wants to spend a billion dollars of his own money in a losing cause.”

Potential kingmaker role
The group disdains the current two-party duopoly, but its rules spell out a way it could play the kingmaker by giving any electoral votes its candidate wins to either the Democratic or Republican candidate. This strategy is what maverick candidate George Wallace hoped for in 1968, but couldn’t achieve.

If Americans Elect succeeds in getting a candidate on the ballot in all or most states — it’s on in six so far — it will defy the tradition that a third party must have an ideology and a charismatic leader. A few examples prove the point:

  • Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette ran in 1924 as a reformer who wanted to curb corporate power.
  • Former vice president Henry Wallace broke from the Democratic Party in 1948, running as a leftist candidate in favor of making peace with the Soviet Union.
  • Former Illinois Rep. John Anderson, having lost in Republican primaries to Ronald Reagan in 1980, ran as a middle-of-the road alternative to Reagan and Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

The most successful third-party candidate in recent decades, Perot, ran in 1992 and again in 1996 as a problem solver who promised to reduce the federal deficit and to use “electronic town hall meetings,” a kind of precursor of the Internet, to gauge public opinion.

With Americans Elect, the candidate remains to be seen and the funding for the group, about $20 million so far, is something of a mystery since it has organized itself as a 501(c) (4) tax-exempt organization which isn’t required to disclose its donors.

“Certain individuals have disclosed,” Elliot Ackerman said. “Peter Ackerman, my father, who has been involved in this, has disclosed. We think many other folks will choose to disclose in the future ... Some of our initial donors who have provided loans to this process quite frankly didn’t want to face the type of retribution that exists right now in Washington.”

Will voters rally to the cause?
Apart from questions about its funding, the group faces more basic challenges.

Will voters flock to a movement that at its start is purely process-oriented, rather than an ideological or populist crusade?

Will the group be able to get its candidates on the ballot in all 50 states? Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, said six in particular have ballot laws that make it daunting: California, Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina.

In California the group needs 1,030,040 signatures; California counties have so far verified about 345,000.

Ballot access used to be easier, Winger said. In 1924 “LaFollette didn’t get into the race as an independent progressive until July 4, 1924 and he was able to get on the ballot of all the states but one.” Americans Elect wouldn’t need to go to such extraordinary lengths “if we had decent reasonable ballot access laws,” he said.

Virtues of a two-party system
Is Americans Elect trying to supply a process and a product that only a small minority of voters really wants?

Political scientist Robert Saldin, who’s currently a health care policy expert at Harvard University, said Americans Elect’s “entire premise appears to rest on the idea that neither Democrats nor Republicans represent real Americans. But compared to many other countries, our political parties are actually quite moderate. To win elections in a two-party system, both parties have to make a serious play for the exact kind of voter that Americans Elect is trying to appeal to.”

He added, “If one of the major parties goes too far to the left or the right, they typically lose because the other party attracts the moderate voters. Remember ‘Reagan Democrats’?  More recently, in 2008, after the Republicans were perceived as having moved too far outside of the mainstream, Obama successfully gained the centrist, independent vote. This two-party dynamic makes it tough for third parties to emerge.”

To third party candidates and their fans the two-party system has seemed dysfunctional, but most voters have routinely rejected that idea.

In 1980, for example, Anderson ran as the candidate of what he called “the National Unity Campaign.” He said early in the campaign that the Republicans, his former party, “are capable of infinite self-delusion” about “how conservative people are.” Six months later, the conservative in the race, Reagan, won 44 states and 51 percent of the popular vote. Anderson got six percent of the vote and won no states.

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Video: GOP Debate Preview

  1. Closed captioning of: GOP Debate Preview

    >> win. rick perry will get another chance to improve his performance tomorrow night. at the washington post bloomberg debate. he's not the only with a lot on the line. cain will be taking the stage. we are joined now from dartmouth college , the site of that debate in new hampshire . so dan, we're hearing that rick perry 's been doing debate prep. although ray sullivan wouldn't fully confirm that report. but they've been down a lot over the last week. something's been going on, that's for sure.

    >> you and i would both be shocked if rick perry were not doing serious debate prep. the people around him have been pretty open about the fact that he has not performed well in these first few debates. that he has to do better. that he needs to do more preparation. and that they're determined he's going to get that. so i think that if he's not ready tomorrow night when he steps on the stage, it won't be for lack of effort on the part of the people around him to get him ready.

    >> every one of these debates this fall, it's always been is this going to be the debate where romney finds himself on the defensive? hasn't happened yet but there is evidence it could happen tomorrow night. we've got the new, obviously new attack ad that perry 's got out this morning online. but even michele bachmann over the weekend, she made reference to the youtube videos of mitt romney saying you'll never find me on both sides of the issue.

    >> clearly the new video from perry 's campaign wants to tee up the health care issue as one he wants to talk about in tomorrow night's economic debate. but i think the reality is there are multiple dynamics. as you suggested this is an important debate for perry but also herman cain who is in the top tier at this point and is likely to get tougher questions as we go around the table on this tomorrow night in ways he hasn't before. it'll be interesting to see what the dynamic is between cain and some of his rivals. particularly those he eclipsed over the past few weeks.

    >> is new hampshire in play? at what point does romney 's lead become insurmountable?

    >> new hampshire is always in play. we have never seen a campaign yet in at which some point new hampshire did not become competitive. every time we've come into these elections, someone often has a lead and a substantial lead particularly at this time of the year. by the time you get to the voting. by the time you get to iowa in the final days, many things can happen. we've seen things people come from behind and win and come close. i think no lead is ever safe in new hampshire .

    >> i know one of the things you love to do is you take the panl from the -- you talk to more people on the ground in new hampshire than the average reporter does. in these other states when you do that and when we've gone about and done that in iowa and south carolina , you hear a yearning for a romney quote, alternative. do you hear that on the ground in new hampshire ?

    >> well, you hear it less here at this point. but i think that the race is not yet fully formed. you know, we are way ahead of the average voter. you mention david broder . one of the things dave taught me is no matter what they're talking about in october or november, real people don't really keen in on what they're going to do until after new year. i think until that point, we won't know exactly what the race looks like. romney is in good shape in new hampshire at this point. but there is a lot yet to happen in this debate. there are tv ads that haven't begun to hit air waives yet. we have a lot of activity that's going to play out before most voters decide what they really intend to do.

    >> we'll be tuning in tomorrow. dan balz , good to have you in new hampshire for us on a monday morning rather than here next to me.

    >> thanks, chuck.

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