Americans Elect searches for a way to ignite third-party fever

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Peter Ackerman was incorrectly described as a hedge-fund financier; he is a onetime banker and investor. In addition, David Boren and Doug Bailey were incorrectly named as members of Americans Elect’s board of advisers; neither has a formal role. This version has been corrected.

April 16, 2012

Last July, a well-funded nonprofit group called Americans Elect announced it had found a new and more honorable path to the White House. It would bypass the primaries, the founders said, via the Internet.

By empowering Web-izens, the group would skip early-state hucksterism and favor-seeking donors. Using viral marketing savvy, the organizers would advance a third-party “unity” ticket without the usual cynicism, circus acts and, it turns out, scrutiny. They aimed, in short, to take the politics out of politics.

The group is run by Peter Ackerman, once a close associate of ’80s junk-bond king Michael Milken and chairman emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has focused much of his attention and wealth on promoting regime change overseas through “nonviolent conflict” by distributing training documentaries and developing video games for dissidents, according to a 2005 profile in the New Republic. (Through a spokeswoman, Ackerman declined an interview.)

The creaky two-party mechanism back home, however, is proving a tougher target.

Last week was supposed to be the first week of online voting on the Americans Elect site, when anyone anywhere could click to endorse practiced politicians or to draft neophytes. But the candidate choices have remained decidedly low-profile, and traffic is meager on the site, which cost $9 million to construct. Scrambling to avert failure, Americans Elect has postponed online voting for a month.

Start-up problems

Third-party groups often form around a personality or a set of ideas. Ross Perot inspired independents by talking about debt reform in 1992. There was the Green Party crusade of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Unity08’s effort to transform New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into an independent. Americans Elect, by contrast, offers an organizational framework to a possible presidential candidate who doesn’t need to tap private funds or enlist single-issue radicals.

The group is still on the lookout for a Goliath-toppling personality. “There’s a short ­list,” said chief executive Kahlil Byrd, without sharing names. How many? “Negative eight,” he said, and his spokeswoman repeated the cryptic tally. As in less than zero? Byrd would only clarify: “More than four.”

Without a candidate’s strengths to promote, Americans Elect’s weaknesses have become more apparent.

In the eyes of some experts and reform activists, Americans Elect’s nonprofit status as a “social-welfare organization” allows it to avoid disclosure of donors while operating, in some ways, like a PAC or a party. Also, the Web site has security problems, as voters can register through multiple e-mail addresses. And, according to Byrd, a “clarification” in Americans Elect bylaws recently instructed that future fundraising would aim to repay donors so that none, including Ackerman, would have contributed more than $10,000. According to Byrd, Ackerman has donated $8 million of the group’s $30 million budget.

Numbers game

But here’s a number that could give Americans Elect clout: 50 states with ballot access, a goal the group has more than halfway met. No major campaign could afford to ignore the group if it achieved that feat, according to political professionals from both major parties. The Americans Elect “unity ticket” might not catapult to the White House, but it could prove a spoiler for one party or the other.

“Americans Elect is a big, bold, hairy experiment,” said Mark McKinnon, the Texas political pro who helped elect and reelect President George W. Bush. As an official adviser, McKinnon predicted that an Americans Elect ticket would garner the 15 percent in public polls to qualify for a lectern in the general election debates.

“I believe at the end of the day,” McKinnon said recently, “Americans Elect will field a credible ticket that will make a serious contribution and have a real impact on this election.”

The leading declared candidate, Buddy Roemer, Louisiana’s former governor whose GOP primary bid never took off, has garnered only 3,177 supporters on the Americans Elect Web site. Behind him is Rocky Anderson, once the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, who has 1,722 supporters. (There are also 300 or so “draft” candidates, nominated by any of the registered online voters.)

Still, Roemer said he has major reservations about the organization.

“Full disclosure is a paramount issue with me,” Roemer said. “Americans Elect does not meet this standard.”

If he gained the group’s nomination after three rounds of online primary voting, Roemer said he would work to pay back the $30 million Americans Elect has spent on its process so as not to be in business with donors he doesn’t know.

Jane Harman, a centrist Democrat who represented a Southern California House district before taking over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recently let Ackerman know that the secrecy was a problem. “People should know,” Harman said, “especially if his goal is to move the national parties to the center,” an aim she shares.

“I don’t feel threatened by [Americans Elect]. I am just bewildered by it,” said David Axelrod, one of President Obama’s top campaign strategists. “It seems a little incoherent to say to Americans, ‘You decide. But just in case we don’t like what you decide, we’ve appointed a board of elites to decide who you can choose from.’

“Why not fully disclose who is funding this,” Axelrod continued, “so people can judge who is behind this?”

Big board

Ackerman’s enlistment of advisers is formidable. Heavyweights on his Americans Elect boards include a former governor and cabinet member (Republican Christine Todd Whitman), a recent overseer of U.S. intelligence (John Negroponte), a former chief executive of Disney (Michael Eisner), and a Democratic pollster (Doug Schoen). Whitman said the organization is a savvy device to amplify centrist players. As a board member, she said, she understands why donors are nervous about going public.

“It’s a risk,” she said. “We’re all being perceived as bucking our respective parties.”

“The higher your position, the higher the risk,” said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles lawyer and longtime Demo­cratic activist.

Sragow recently resigned from serving as Americans Elect’s political director, in charge of candidate briefings. He was sanguine about what the association could still cost him: “I don’t think I’m going to get any of my friends nominated to the Naval Academy anytime soon. I don’t think I’m going to get invited to any of the receptions I normally get invited to.”

Byrd revealed little about those potential candidates waiting in the wings, except that the group had briefed “more than 100” who’ve “led as governors, as senators, military commands, corporations.”

And from those advisers may come Americans Elect’s face-saving option. In the past month, a small group of activists has emerged to recruit Dave Walker, an independent who once ran the Government Accountability Office, to run for president. Walker, who is on the Americans Elect board of advisers, said that he knew about the effort and that an Americans Elect employee had stepped down to lead the draft movement. Also in recent weeks, Americans Elect changed the requirements Walker needs to meet to win the nomination, revising the number of online supporters to 1,000 in 10 states instead of 5,000 in 10 states.

“This is an issue-oriented movement, and they’re trying to put a face to the movement,” Walker said in a phone interview. He said his mission has long been deficit reduction and the reorganization of the national debt. “For whatever reason, they believe I’m a person who symbolizes that. I guess they kind of view me as a means to an end.”

He remained, however, undecided: “My mama told me a long time ago you never say never.”

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