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Guest Column: Presidential alternative fizzles: What went wrong with Americans Elect?

July 18, 2012

By Jacqueline Salit
President, IndependentVoting.org

Americans Elect, the group aiming to create an alternative nominating process for a centrist “unity” ticket in the 2012 presidential elections, announced in May it would not field a presidential candidate.

Founded by financier Peter Ackerman, Americans Elect had raised and spent $35 million in pursuit of 50 state ballot lines and a database of non-aligned delegates who would choose presidential and vice presidential nominees. But despite deep pockets, significant media exposure, and pollsters galore pointing to extreme dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual, Americans Elect fell flat. What went wrong?

I first met Peter Ackerman in 2009, before Americans Elect was up and running. He had been involved with its predecessor, UNITY ’08, which had hoped to “shock the system” back into functionality by running an ideologically divergent president/vice president slate in 2008. Though it also enjoyed considerable media attention, it never achieved political traction. Its founders left the organization to form Draft Bloomberg for President, and it was hobbled by a Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruling that categorized it as a political committee subject to strict federal contribution limits.

Ackerman took over UNITY ’08, led it through litigation against the FEC, and won an important decision in the Court of Appeals whereby the FEC was forced to recognize the enterprise as a process, not a party or candidate committee.

Ackerman was extremely energized by the ruling, and properly so. However, though the value of the court decision was that it empowered Ackerman to organize (and fully capitalize) Americans Elect as a process, they based their entire 2012 strategy on finding a candidate.

In this, Ackerman and company misread independent voters, the self-declared engine for a new direction in American politics. Independents want to root out systemic partisanship. They don’t want to ameliorate it with appeals to centrism, bipartisanship or a better brand of candidate.

They also misread the American public. Though projected as a conduit for an up-from-the-bottom political revolt, Americans Elect was designed in such a way to determine the nature, the extent and the leader of the revolt — before it even happened.

Is it any wonder that the American people, including independents, did not buy in? Pre-packaged revolutions do not sell to the American people.

In our early conversations, it was explained to Ackerman that the idea of channeling mass discontent into a unity ticket (a Republican and a Democrat or an independent plus one) would not automatically appeal to independents — now 40 percent of the country and the voters most likely to revolt against the system. After 2000, when the implosion of the Perot-inspired Reform Party and the controversial impact of Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy set the third party movement back on its heels, independent voters turned their attention away from third party candidates and began to focus on restructuring the political process itself.

By 2008, independents were practicing “fusion” politics by participating where they were permitted to, in open primaries and caucuses. Barack Obama, campaigning on a vision of a post-partisan America, became the Democratic nominee because of the support of independents in the 33 states that allowed them to vote. John McCain, still thought of as a maverick, won the Republican nomination because independents backed him. In the general election, a significant majority of independents supported Obama.

Influenced by organizations such as mine — IndependentVoting.org — independents were pressing for non-partisan reform of the process (open primaries, non-partisan redistricting, etc.), not for a third party or a third party-style candidate.

Americans Elect, however, was convinced that creating ballot lines in 50 states, launching an interactive website, and holding an Internet-based primary would become the instrument that Americans, including independents, would use to redress their grievances.

The design raised difficult questions for his team. How could Americans Elect guarantee their slate be composed of major (and only major) players given that was Ackerman’s goal? Answer: Set criteria for the candidates that required them to be prior officeholders of major jurisdictions or CEOs of major corporations. Empower a select board to approve (or disapprove) candidacies. Limit full access to the Americans Elect database and thereby control the campaigning.

In other words, the Americans Elect model was profoundly self-contradictory. It preached the doctrine of up-from-the-bottom democracy. But its design precluded everything but the predetermined scenario.

Americans Elect’s non-viability was made all the worse by fawning media, which love to attend to the dreamscapes of billionaires while largely ignoring the bricklaying of ordinary Americans who are creating the foundation for a post-partisan political culture. Here’s hoping that Ackerman and company re-invest the infrastructure they created in supporting the independent movement for sweeping structural political reform. That’s where the next American revolution is already under way.

Jacqueline Salit, the president of IndependentVoting.org, is the author of Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America, to be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in August.

From the July 18-24, 2012, issue

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