Why Third Parties Still Fail Despite Voter Anger
Washington -- They had the money. They had the organization. They had the ballot access. What they were missing, however, was a candidate.
Most Americans have probably never heard of Americans Elect. But as polls show dissatisfaction with both parties nearing all-time highs, a group created for the 2012 campaign to field a third-party presidential candidate would seem like a natural success.
Why, then, did the group -- which launched in a flurry of publicity and spent $35 million to get on ballots in 29 states -- fail?
Last week, organizers declared that "the primary process for the Americans Elect nomination has come to an end" without a candidate to nominate.
The fledgling group's inability to coalesce around a candidate points to the difficulty of breaking into a system heavily weighted to favor Republican and Democratic politicians -- and the struggles of attracting mainstream candidates willing to forgo parties for an independent run.
"Part of the problem was, they couldn't get serious candidates to throw their hats in the process," CNN contributor John Avlon said in assessing Americans Elect.
Can't break through
Often seen as "spoilers" for candidates in mainstream parties, third-party candidates are nothing new in presidential elections. After serving two terms in the White House as a Republican, President Theodore Roosevelt ran under the Bull Moose Party banner in 1912 (he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson but finished ahead of Republican candidate William Howard Taft).
In 1948, Strom Thurmond ran as the segregationist States' Rights candidate. He won some votes in the South but not nearly enough to beat Harry Truman. A similar story played out in 1968: George Wallace, running as a the American Independent Party candidate, won five states in the South -- the last candidate not running as a Democrat or Republican to win any electoral votes.
More recently, Ross Perot, in 1992, and Ralph Nader, in 2000, have come to embody Americans' perception of third-party presidential candidates. Perot won a sizable chunk of the vote, nearly 19%, but no electoral votes. And Nader, who ran as the Green Party candidate, became persona non grata among some Democrats, who blamed him for stealing votes from Al Gore after the former vice president narrowly lost Florida.
Candidates working outside a major party machine face challenges like not being allowed to appear in presidential debates and convincing a skeptical media that their candidacies are serious. It's also a major task to qualify for states' ballots. The process can be expensive and require hundreds of thousands of petition signatures.
Enter Americans Elect. By paving the way though ballot access, the group hoped this was the year a third-party candidacy became truly viable.
Yet the conditions of this election cycle, according to Avlon, proved less than ideal. Since President Barack Obama is running for re-election, the process is largely a referendum on his first term rather than a vote of confidence for either Democrats or Republicans. Obama and Romney are also both relatively centrist candidates, making it hard to advocate for a third-party alternative.
"If a Rick Santorum or Herman Cain had gotten the nomination, you would have seen a stampede of potential candidates" to Americans Elect, Avlon said.
A difficult process
Aside from the political challenges, some saw the Americans Elect process for nominating candidates as too long and rigorous: Its website has hundreds of pages of bylaws, rules, committee pledges, candidate pledges, elector applications and briefing books.
Becoming a verified supporter of a candidate proved so challenging that the site's leading contender, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, couldn't even get approved to support himself.
"When candidate can't get verified, you've got a problem," said Roemer's campaign manager, Carlos Sierra.
Avlon echoed that sentiment, saying Americans Elect's effort, while well-intentioned, proved to be "fatally flawed."
"They realized too late to effect their strategy that they made it too secure," Avlon said. The system, which was designed by the same group that designed eTrade's secure website, was time-consuming for voters looking to support a candidate.
Ileana Wachtel, national press secretary for Americans Elect, said processes like verifying voter registration and gathering support for candidates were to be expected when running for an office like the presidency.
"It wasn't really too onerous given you have to have security that it's one person, one vote," Wachtel said. "If we hadn't had that, a verification system, then what? People would have been complaining it's not secure."
In the end, the role of Americans Elect was to provide a candidate with a platform rather than a campaign.
"They were running for president," Wachtel said. "So if they couldn't get 1,000 supporters in 10 different states, the onus is on them. We supplied the platform. We created the technology. The candidates had to run a campaign."
When Americans Elect packed it in Thursday, Roemer had the most supporters on the group's website. He would have had more, Sierra said, if the process weren't so strict.
"I think they were over-ambitious in their threshold," he said. "Think of an elderly person going through that process. It's discriminatory in that it favors younger people."
Those complaints, when fielded by Americans Elect staff, rarely got resolved, he said.
"There were just so many growing pains," Sierra said.
Lack of name recognition
Perhaps more troublesome, he said, was a desire among the group's leadership to field a candidate with more money and more mainstream views.
"Honestly, I think if it was another candidate, a Mike Bloomberg, they would have been more comfortable with it," Sierra said of Americans Elect. "They always had issue with our hundred-dollar (contribution) limit. Toward the end, they started using the word 'credible' more. Their definition of credible is different than ours. When they're thinking of someone credible, they're thinking of someone with a lot more money."
Wachtel said it was impossible to speculate about a candidate like New York Mayor Bloomberg or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (who, like Roemer, ran for the 2012 GOP nomination).
Ultimately, Roemer's lack of name recognition was the campaign's problem, not American Elect's, Wachtel said.
"People didn't know who Buddy Roemer was," she said. "He lived in New Hampshire, ran in the New Hampshire primary and only got 900 votes. It was up to the individual to run his own campaign."
In the end, Sierra said, Americans Elect blew an opportunity in a year ripe for a third-party candidacy.
"They're really putting us one step back," he said. "The media skews it that Democrats and Republicans don't need a third party, and since Americans Elect failed, the country must not be ready for a third party.
"Honestly, we might have been better off if Americans Elect never happened."