“None of the above” will now be the only real option for voters frustrated with the tired choice between two parties now that Americans Elect, the well-funded nonpartisan organization that sought to nominate a legitimate third-party candidate for president in 2012, has folded. (Only Nevada has an actual “none of the above” option on the ballot.)
It seems that the inability to create a movement in this vein was less about the sentiment — polls show Americans are aren’t fans of either party specifically or the political process generally — but it was lacking a key ingredient: leadership.
“You can’t fill a political vacuum with a concept,” Lee Miringoff, assistant professor of political science and director the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told TPM. “The context is there, and the climate is right, but you need someone you can look at, a person, a candidate. Politics has become much more about personal qualities of individuals.”
Americans Elect announced last week they were unable to field a presidential candidate, due to a lack of interest and an online nominating system that only the most committed third-partiers could seem to figure out.
The organization drew serious financial backing to the tune of $35 million from major donors, who mostly remained anonymous due to the group’s status as a 501(c)4 rather than a political entity, although one major donor who surfaced was hedge fund billionaire Peter Ackerman, who gave $5.5 million to the cause. And organizers didn’t lack for ambition — Americans Elect had a stated goal of qualifying for the ballot in all 50 states — it ultimately got 27.
But the biggest draw and the largest failure was in finding an actual candidate. Organizers had offered up the names of some of the most well-known political centrists — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and others. None expressed interest.
“There is a desire among delegates and millions of Americans who have supported Americans Elect to see a credible candidate emerge from this process,” the organization said in a release announcing it was closing shop. “However, the rules, as developed in consultation with the Americans Elect delegates, are clear. As of this week, no candidate achieved the national support threshold required to enter the Americans Elect Online Convention in June. The primary process for the Americans Elect nomination has come to an end.”
The group’s web-only procedure contributed to its downfall, creating two specific shortcomings. There wasn’t much interest in the candidates who actually said they would accept a nomination under the organization’s banner (former Louisana Gov. Buddy Roemer, for instance) and attempts to “draft” candidates produced only pols who have been heavily involved in national politics before - including candidates from this presidential cycle: Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and even President Obama.
“This may not be a death knell for third-party efforts, but it’s a pretty good shot to the groin,” Mark McKinnon, GOP strategist and alumni of the George W. Bush campaigns, told the Washington Post.
Two school of thought emerged on the end of Americans Elect: Those who still hold rosy views of the organization, despite its failure, and those eager to say, “I told you so.”
“As any political scientist could tell you, there are deep structural forces that keep the two-party system in place,” Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review . “In addition, the group was clearly intended to serve as a platform for an establishment centrist candidate like Michael Bloomberg even though such candidates lack a highly salient cross-cutting issue that would allow them to draw supporters away from the two major parties. The tepid enthusiasm for such candidates meant that the group was hamstrung from the beginning.”
There are examples of successful independent candidacies within the American political system — former Gov. Angus King (I-ME) is in a very strong position to succeed Sen. Olympia Snowe when she retires, after his established popularity with Maine voters moved top-tier candidates from both parties to take a pass on the race. And King’s message echoes the tone that Americans Elect attempted to strike.
“In my experience, no individual or party has a monopoly on the truth,” King wrote in a Bangor Daily News op-ed Friday: Good ideas and creative solutions come from all over the place and are usually the product of open debate, discussion and, finally, compromise between competing views. Indeed, the Constitution itself is the product of just such a compromise.”
But the key component, which seemed fairly obvious until the Americans Elect bid, is that King is a person running for office, not an organization seeking a candidate. And without that commitment, the organization itself was not enough to change the system.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.