Crashing the Party

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

Hate all the presidential candidates? Use your browser to build a dream ticket.

'Tis the season for post-partisanship--again. Last week, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the patron saint of anti-Washington babble, flew to the nation's capital to accuse "both parties" of "promis[ing] their constituents the world" and giving them "debt and a sluggish economy and anemic job growth" instead. Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, predicted that "unless both parties change, then I think [a third party] is an inevitability." ("We aren't doing anything for the people," the Arizona Republican confessed.) Even Rick Perry got in on the act. "This is not the Democrats' country or the Republicans' country," he told a crowd of Iowans. "This is our country."

If such plague-on-both-your-houses rhetoric sends a thrill up your leg--and if you'd like to see some independent candidate trumpeting similar sentiments during next year's presidential contest--then Americans Elect is the 501(c)(4) organization for you. Founded in 2010 to "break the gridlock in Washington" and "open up the political process," as the official literature puts it, Americans Elect isn't affiliated with any particular politician, at least not yet. It doesn't have an ideology, or even a platform, really. That's because AE isn't a third party so much as a "second way" to nominate a president. "Given the level of frustration with the parties, running outside of the two-party system will be a huge asset in 2012, not a liability," insists Elliot Ackerman, the group's COO.

Here's how it's supposed to work. Americans Elect gathers the signatures required to get on the ballot in all 50 states. (So far, they've collected nearly 2 million--two thirds of their goal.) Meanwhile, the group's 200,000-plus "delegates" gather at AmericansElect.org, answering questions about their views, assembling heterodox policy platforms, and pledging to support their favorite politicians, military leaders, CEOs, college presidents, and ordinary citizens. As long as you're a registered voter, you're welcome to participate. In April 2012, successive rounds of online voting will winnow the sprawling field to six finalists. The six, assuming they all want in, will then have to select a running mate from outside their own party. Finally, in June, an Internet convention will choose a nominee to appear, nationwide, on Americans Elect's ballot line--and at the fall debates, provided he or she clears 15 percent in the polls. The founders claim they have enough cash to go all the way; they've raised $21 million so far, mostly from a handful of hedge funders who have ponied up more than $100,000 apiece. And they believe that new social-media technologies will allow candidates to "make their case directly to the American people [and] create a national presence" much faster than in previous cycles, as the group's CEO, Kahlil Byrd, puts it.

The plan is clever, and the timing is good. President Obama is saddled with near-fatal polling numbers. The Republican Party is so desperate for an alternative to Mitt Romney that they've spent a month entertaining the possibility of President Herman Cain. Even Congress hates Congress, and nine out of 10 Americans are "frustrated" with the state of politics. Nearly two thirds of the country wants an independent candidate to run for president.

There's only one problem: who, exactly, will lead the charge? Every noteworthy third-party presidential bid in modern American history has centered on a forceful, often familiar personality: Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader. They were potential presidents in search of a path to the White House. But this is the opposite: a path to the White House in search of a potential president. "A nonparty party isn't how you gain power," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "It just hasn't worked that way in American politics. …