The restless political middle — emboldened by the recent inability of a special congressional committee to agree on a debt-reduction deal — is staking out a controversial plan to insert itself into the 2012 election.
A bipartisan group of political strategists and donors known as Americans Elect has raised $22 million and is likely to place a third presidential candidate on the ballot in every state next year. The goal is to provide an alternative to President Obama and the GOP nominee and break the tradition of a Democrat-vs.-Republican lineup.
The effort could represent a promising new chapter for political moderates, who see a wide-open middle in the political landscape as congressional gridlock and bitter partisan fights have driven down favorability ratings for both parties.
“Voters are saddened by the inability of people in Washington to deal with the issues that are important to them,” said the group’s chief executive, Kahlil Byrd, a Republican strategist who once worked for Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D).
Americans Elect has ballot slots in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and five other states, with certification pending in several others.
The group is relying on an ambitious plan to hold a political convention on the Internet that would treat registered voters like fans of “American Idol,” giving everyone a shot at picking a favorite candidate.
“We want to gather millions of people and allow them to run authentically through the process,” Byrd said, calling it a “wide-scale draft movement for presidential candidates.”
Unlike the Green Party, Americans Elect is not creating a separate party, but trying to change the political process in two ways. First, the group seeks to create a mixed-party ticket, requiring its presidential candidate to pick a running mate from a different party.
Second, Americans Elect — which was formed and is backed by Peter Ackerman, a wealthy private investor and philanthropist, along with Byrd — wants to take the nominating process out of the hands of a few primary voters and make it more open through the use of technology. Registered voters who sign up on the group’s Web site would directly nominate and select candidates online in the spring. A final nominee would be selected in June.
All of this has the potential to affect the 2012 election, said Nicco Mele, who lectures at Harvard University on technology and politics and helped build an online following for former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
Americans Elect’s online nomination process could be “potentially disruptive” to the presidential campaign, he said.
No candidates for the Americans Elect nomination have officially declared, but some prominent people are associated with the effort, including former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman (R), who serves on the group’s board of directors.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s name has also been mentioned, probably because a leader in the effort to draft the independent into the 2008 presidential race is involved in Americans Elect.
A hyperpartisan Washington has prompted other new groups. An organization known as No Labels is backed by Bloomberg and is pushing members of Congress to work together. Upward Spiral, an initiative supported by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, is urging Americans to withhold donations from both parties to protest the overly partisan atmosphere.
Neither of those groups supports Americans Elect’s plan to nominate a third ticket.
“Our view is that for better or worse, the two-party system that we have is the system that we are going to continue to have,” said No Labels co-founder Bill Galston, who was a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We’re not pushing for a third party or an independent candidacy.”
Some longtime political hands worry that no credible candidate will want to be the first guinea pig in the effort. And the blog techPresident has asked how Americans Elect leaders can hold a fully democratic election and still guarantee that their ticket will be centrist. Others warn that the group could become an experiment in technology gone wrong.
“Occupy Wall Street has discovered Americans Elect. The tea party has discovered Americans Elect,” said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank about the effort. “What happens if it gets hijacked?”
But Americans Elect officials think they can guard against fraud with a secure Internet site built by a former chief technology officer of E*Trade, a stock-trading site. They note that corporations have used the Internet for secure proxy and shareholder votes for years.
And they dispute the notion that they are hoping to be spoilers in the 2012 election.
“We have no aspirations to create a third party. We are a two-party country,” Byrd said. “We always root for the Democratic and Republican party to make us irrelevant. We are creating a credible process, a credible ticket and a nationwide organization that is not beholden to any special interests.”
Schultz, of Starbucks, said he thinks the focus should be on getting the two parties to work together effectively.
“I’m not here in any way to criticize the president or one party versus the other,” he said. “But I also do not want to embrace the status quo, because I don’t think it’s working.”
Americans Elect was born out of a similar effort four years ago known as Unity ’08, which was backed by many of the same people. But fundraising for Unity ’08 stalled amid a legal fight with the Federal Election Commission over contribution limits.
Americans Elect, however, was formed not as a political party but as a “social welfare” organization, drawing criticism because that means it is not legally required to name its donors.
Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign-finance watchdog Democracy 21, sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service this month asking that Americans Elect be forced to disclose its donors under laws governing political organizations.
“The reason for the switch appears quite clear: to keep secret from the American people the donors supporting its political activities,” he said in a statement.
Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer and Peter Ackerman’s son, said Americans Elect is not a political party, it is a nominating process. And he hopes many of the group’s donors will come forward and make their involvement public.
“This is a new idea, and when we started this we had to go somewhere to get the initial resources loaned to us,” he said. He added that more than 3,000 people — many of them small donors — have given to Americans Elect. “What we’re doing isn’t particularly popular in the Republican and Democratic parties. These are individuals for whom it complicates things for them to be challenging the status quo.”