Voters’ renewed anger at Washington spurs formation of third-party advocate groups

Chris Cillizza
Reporter July 24, 2011

The numbers are startling.

Eighty percent of people in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll described themselves as either “angry” or “dissatisfied” with the way Washington works — the highest that number has been in nearly two decades.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Additionally, 63 percent said they would prefer to vote for someone other than their current member of Congress in the 2012 election, a historic high in Post-ABC data on that question.

The poll was taken before the “grand bargain” on debt reduction being crafted by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) collapsed late last week amid the sort of acrimony and public name-calling sure to further sour voters on the ability of the two political parties to get nearly anything done.

Given all of the above, advocates of a third party — or at the very least another viable option in the 2012 presidential race — seem to be sprouting up all over.

The two most prominent are Americans Elect, a group aimed at winning ballot access for an eventual third-party candidate, and No Labels, an organization filled with high-profile names — including former George W. Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon and former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller — designed as an online home for the politically disaffected. “If you build it (ballot access), they (candidates and voters) will come,” McKinnon said in an e-mail.

No Labels says it advocates for bipartisan solutions to problems and not a third-party presidential candidate.

There are others. Votocracy allows virtually anyone to run for president. Ruck.us, a site developed by two former Democratic operatives, sorts people by common interests rather than political leanings. The Centrist Alliance, the newest entrant into the field, formed officially on July 4.

Those who closely monitor these third-party efforts say that not only is there an array of groups with similar goals but there also is money flowing to them from wealthy individuals trying to change the two-party dynamic.

“Politics has lagged our social and business evolution,” said Scott Ehredt of the Centrist Alliance. “There are 30 brands of Pringles in our local grocery store. How is it that Americans have so much selection for potato chips and only two brands — and not very good ones — for political parties?”

But a look at the recent political past suggests that there are still major hurdles to turning voter discontent with the two parties into a credible third-party bid.

In 2008, a group of former elected officials and wealthy individuals formed Unity08 to — you guessed it! — go beyond the two-party system. (Peter Ackerman, a wealthy businessman, was on the board of Unity08 and is a major financial backer for Americans Elect.) The group never went anywhere and then greatly scaled back its operations after an unfavorable ruling from the Federal Election Commission.

Although Americans Elect’s focus on ballot access is a critical, technical piece of the third-party puzzle that has long been overlooked — every state has its own rules about how a candidate qualifies for the ballot — success or failure still depends on an effective messenger.

“I think you need an appealing big name, an experienced candidate to capture people’s imagination and for the movement to organize around,” said Mark Salter, a longtime aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a member of No Labels.

What would that candidate look like? “A sane, experienced [Ross] Perot,” Salter said.

Perot’s success in 1992 — the last time the partisan climate was, at least according to polls, this poisoned — is the model to which all third-party advocates point. He received 19 percent of the tally — 19 million votes. But, Perot came nowhere near that total four years later (8 million votes), and no third-party candidate has come close to it since. (Ralph Nader received fewer than 3 million votes in 2000.)

The only name mentioned who fits Salter’s “sane [and] experienced” description is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), although it’s hard to imagine what exactly Bloomberg’s support base would look like in a national race. Businessman Donald Trump, who recently said he might run as an independent, doesn’t meet the Salter standard.

So although the climate is ripe for a third-party candidacy, it’s not at all clear that such a campaign would function as anything other than a spoiler for one of the two parties’ nominees.

“As [independent 1980 candidate] John Anderson and Ross Perot can tell you, you can make a splash but you can’t win without a major party behind you,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a group aimed at pushing centrist politics and policies.

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