October 5, 2011

The more I talk about the need for a problem-solving third party in the “extreme” center, the more people come out of the woodwork to tell me they’ve reached the same conclusion. But some in high places have to keep their views secret, at least for now. That’s the case with one public policy leader who sent me a memo on how today’s polarized gridlock in Washington could be shaken up by a third party that targets Congress, not the presidency. As the Great American Disruption unfolds, from Occupy Wall Street to Americans Elect, this person’s ideas need to be in the mix.

For starters, this person notes, it’s very hard in our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral college system for a third-party contender to win. The last one was Abraham Lincoln — but only a decade after Republicans (or their predecessors) started winning seats in Congress. There’s the risk of being a spoiler. And even if he or she won, how would a president elected this way be able to govern?

The better route to power is to target Congress, this person says. With Congress so divided — and voters mad, hurting and short-tempered — we’re in an era in which every election or two could see a swing of control back and forth between the parties. Yet the margins remain narrow enough that a third party could gain a decisive toehold by denying either party a majority. Imagine, this person posits, how the recent debt-ceiling debate would have played out if a third party controlled 25 seats in the House and four or five in the Senate.

How many states and districts could be in play? Research suggests that, thanks to partisan geographic “sorting” in recent decades, the bulk of states and districts are represented by senators and representatives with predictable ideologies. But 20 states and 100 districts look competitive. With the right effort, it’s conceivable that a third party could win enough of these seats to hold the balance of power.

Indeed, analysis suggests that today’s Congress represents the views of only about 40 percent of American voters. An economically conservative, socially liberal party focused on problem-solving could appeal to many who feel left out.

Sounds like someone needs to call a meeting. This person thinks a new organization (or 10, or 50) should raise money to do the research and polling to refine a list of promising states and districts; develop the associated agenda and messaging; and recruit and help finance candidates, with a view to running a slate as soon as 2014.

My own view is that fed-up patriots don’t have to pick between Congress and the White House. Why not both? Though the challenges are daunting, the megaphone (and organizing platform) of a presidential race is unparalleled. The right campaign could be the vehicle for championing and organizing around the broader structural changes the country needs in order to get serious about our problems, even as it exposes the hoaxes both parties are peddling.

Americans Elect is explicitly not a third party — but it’s developing the technology, procedural and ballot-access infrastructure that could enable new third-party congressional contenders in years to come. That infrastructure will get meatier Thursday with the release of AE’s “Briefing Book for Candidates and Draft Committees” on the group’s 2012 presidential nominating process.

The 39-page document is fascinating. These folks are rethinking from scratch how presidential nominations ought to work in the Internet age.

In a nutshell, AE candidates will qualify by meeting certain thresholds of “clicks” of support from delegates, many of whom they or draft committees are expected to recruit.

Several rounds of national convention voting will take place between April and June. By June 26, 2012, AE hopes that millions of delegates (including you, if you sign up) will nominate an independent ticket that has 50-state ballot access.

Being liberated from candidates selected through the usual pandering to a handful of party activists in Iowa or New Hampshire would be an incredible prize.

Whether the goal is Congress or the White House, something big is brewing. And, as with flustered financial executives confused about the protests on Wall Street, or party regulars who pat Americans Elect on the head for being a sweet little Internet idea, the powers that be are always the last to know.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.