Novel alternative presidential ticket falls short

WASHINGTON — An ambitious effort to launch a third-party presidential ticket this fall has foundered, done in by its inability to attract a top-tier candidate and the grass-roots support necessary to power its novel online nominating process.

Despite the backing of heavyweight political and business leaders and a $15-million effort to get on the ballot across the country, Americans Elect announced Tuesday that none of its potential candidates mustered the minimum support needed to qualify for the group’s primary.

That leaves the nonpartisan organization in an odd and unprecedented situation: It is already on the general election ballot in 29 states, including California — giving it greater reach than the Green Party — but it does not have a ticket.

The group’s leaders are meeting Wednesday to consider their options and plan to make an announcement Thursday. In a statement, Chief Executive Kahlil Byrd said there was “an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate emerge from this process.”

But nominating a candidate without a primary would require the board to change its rules, a move that could trigger criticism that the process was being changed in midstream.

Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and onetime political director of the group, said that it would be “incredibly frustrating and disappointing” to abandon the 2-year-old, $35-million project now. But he cautioned that any changes to the process would have to be done carefully, adding that “there will be shots fired at the Americans Elect candidate based on how that candidate got the nomination.”

It’s a deflating scenario for a group that pledged to break the lock of the Democratic and Republican parties and field a viable independent presidential candidate, selected through a secure online nomination convention.

But Americans Elect’s secretive process — including its refusal to identify its donors — and top-down approach hobbled its attempts to trigger grass-roots enthusiasm. Historically, third-party or independent bids like that of H. Ross Perot in 1992 have gained momentum because of the individual running, not merely the concept of an alternative.

“At the very least, you need a visible and skilled candidate,” said Walter Stone, professor of political science at UC Davis who studies third-party movements. “In some ways, they have the cart before the horse.”

Even the most popular draft candidate on the Americans Elect website — Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who continues to pursue his party’s nomination for president — is shy the required 10,000 clicks of online support to make it onto the ballot, despite the efforts of some Paul supporters to rally support for his candidacy. And former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is actively seeking the group’s nomination, has managed to muster only about 6,000 clicks of support. That’s a small fraction of the more than 420,000 people who signed up on the website to be delegates.

The group’s backers are puzzled that Americans Elect has not been met with more enthusiasm.

“When you can go to someone of national stature and say, ‘Here’s an opportunity to put yourself before the electorate with no need to spend five minutes in the primaries,’ I would think you probably would have had five world-class candidates,” said David Albertson, a commodities trader in Florida who donated to the group and is on its Board of Advisors. “But it didn’t happen.”

Americans Elect gave private briefings to dozens of politicians and other public figures, but few were willing to step forward. The group’s advisors said some feared retribution by the Democratic and Republican establishments.

“Good and qualified people simply aren’t willing to subject themselves to the poisonous environment that exists today,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican political strategist who also sits on the group’s Board of Advisors.

But some political experts challenged the very premise that Americans Elect was built on — that there is a hunger for a centrist party.

Third-party and independent movements “appeal to the myth that there is this underlying consensus out there that the [major] parties are just ignoring. And that’s fundamentally false,” Stone said. “Parties differ because they tap into differing constituencies with different values, different interests and ideologies.”

Americans Elect grew out of a similar effort called Unity08, which attempted to launch an independent presidential ticket in 2008.

The group has been financed largely by Peter Ackerman, a private investment executive who made a fortune in junk bonds in the 1980s and serves as chairman of American Elect’s Board of Directors. He donated $8 million of the $35 million raised so far by the group, according to spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel. In all, 7,000 people have contributed, she said, with 40 giving more than $10,000 each. Americans Elect has not had to disclose their names because it changed its tax status from that of a political organization to a 501(c)4 social welfare group.

The group contends that it is not a political organization, even though it has petitioned to be recognized as a party across the country.

“The only political philosophy we have is that people should be greater than parties,” Elliot Ackerman, Peter Ackerman’s son and the group’s chief operating officer, said in an interview last year.

The organization attracted an eclectic group of advisors including former Walt Disney Co.Chief Executive Michael Eisner, former National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair, former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and reality television producer Mark Burnett.

But such boldfaced names did not help the group overcome skepticism about its motives. Instead of tapping into a wave of grass-roots energy, Americans Elect drew critics who hammered its decision to keep its donors secret. One blog, Americans Elect Transparency, has been devoted to scrutinizing the group’s motives.

Sragow dismissed “the conspiracy theories,” saying the organization is “a well-intentioned effort to break open the political process and allow people in the center to regain their foothold.”

But its pitch to potential candidates came with a major catch: Though Americans Elect has poured cash into ballot access and a sophisticated online voting platform, it did not intend to raise money for its eventual nominee. Whoever won the nomination in the online convention planned for June would face the near-impossible task of funding a national presidential campaign from scratch, just months before election day.

Many of the public figures floated as potential Americans Elect candidates — such as retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snoweof Maine or former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. — never took the bait. Paul, who could have rallied his network of supporters to the site, said he was not interested in a third-party bid.

Instead, the group was left with a lesser-known pool of declared candidates, including Roemer and Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City.

Roemer pledged Tuesday to continue seeking the group’s nomination, saying, “What Americans Elect has done for our country is revolutionary.”

But it remains unclear whether the group’s massive investment will be lasting. One of its main goals was to achieve ballot access in all 50 states, in hope of garnering enough of the vote this fall to win a permanent spot on the ballot for future elections.

That plan could be stymied if it cannot settle on a candidate — in about a dozen states, potential parties are required to list their nominee to qualify for ballot access.

Still, the group’s supporters said they believed the public would eventually embrace the nonpartisan path Americans Elect is offering.

Americans “ought to be lining up in the street to join us,” Albertson said. “This is a way out.”