In July of last year, Thomas Friedman, from his perch on The New York Times op-ed page, wrote about a “quiet political start-up” backed by millions of hedge fund dollars. Named Americans Elect, the group planned to cut through the partisan divide by holding an online convention designed to nominate the kind of centrist presidential candidate who couldn’t survive the hidebound nominating contests of the major parties.
“What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out,” Mr. Friedman wrote then.
In upstate New York, Ric Wells, a construction worker and musician who had recently launched a letter writing campaign to local newspapers complaining about the dysfunction of state government, was sent the column by his sister in Dallas.
“It hit home,” he remembered. “Rather than have a party say, ‘Ok, you have these six people to represent you and you have chose among them,’ Americans Elect was designed to have a wide-open field. To me it was more of the voice of the people being heard.”
Both parties, as he tells it, are acting “unconscionably” towards immigrants. He wants the Federal Reserve audited, and oil drilling in the Gulf, and sees “everything going towards extremism,” in the political parties.
He went on to become the New York state captain for the group, supervising 250 other “delegate leaders,” organizing meets-ups in bars and traveling to Washington D.C. for a national convention earlier this year.
Jackie Freeman, 60, (but “going on 30,” she insisted) was a mostly unemployed real estate broker in the Chicago-area, someone who had volunteered for Eugene McCarthy at the age of 15, and grew into the kind of independent who supported John Anderson and John McCain in 2000. She saw the Friedman column on Facebook, posted by a childhood friend.
“I have completely soured on the two-party system. I don’t think there is that much difference in the two parties, in the way they function,” she said. “I think we desperately need to change the nominating process.”
But last week, the dreams of Ms. Freeman, Mr. Friedman and the like were dashed when Americans Elect, despite pouring $35 million into the effort and getting on the ballot in 29 states, announced that they were packing it in for the 2012 campaign season, with a cryptically worded statement whose clearest line about their intentions—“The primary process for the Americans Elect nomination has come to an end”—left even those who had been with the group from the beginning trying to figure out what comes next.
The plan for Americans Elect was simple. Get millions of Americans to sign up on the website. Have them declare what they are looking for in a candidate. Would be presidents soon would follow, with the leaders of the organization weeding out anyone patently unserious. The group’s well-heeled donors would provide the ballot access in all 50 states. The only stipulation being that whoever won the online primary had to pick someone from the opposite party as a running mate.
“What really defines a moderate is a willingness to compromise and accommodate and work together,” said Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for the governorship of Maine in 2010. “What really upsets them is gridlock. It’s the loggerheads…I know the party system is supposed to be the secret sauce of the American democracy, but I think a lot people think we need to come up with a better sauce.”
But Americans Elect failed mostly because the recipe for becoming a delegate was far from simple. In order to prevent the system from being rigged, supporters couldn’t just click on a “Like” button on Facebook but had to fill out a lengthy and invasive questionnaire that took up to a half-an-hour to complete. Solomon Kleinsmith, a political consultant from Nebraska who volunteered as delegate leader, was surprised when he tried to sign-up on the site only to be asked about a piece of property his ex-wife owned in Utah.
“It was like they run a credit check on you,” he said. “There were a handful of people who were hardcore volunteers who tried about a dozen times to become delegates and then gave up.”
The Americans Elect effort failed because no candidate was able to garner enough online support among the delegates—a problem derived from a combination of the fact that the online registration was too hard, and that no legitimate candidate emerged, especially not one in the Mike Bloomberg/Jon Huntsman/socially moderate/fiscally conservative model (Ron Paul, with his legions of dedicated supporters, probably could have hijacked the process, but never showed much interest in it.)
The leadership of Americans Elect is still planning on running candidates for local elections in 2014, and trying again for the presidency in 2016, but in the meantime there are, according to the group, over 400,000 people who signed up on their website. Now, it would follow, they are ripe for the taking for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
Conversations with nearly a dozen Americans Elect supporters from all over the country, in the days following the crash, reveal a group of highly engaged wound-be voters looking for a political home. They sound, in many respects like natural Democrats, if only the Democrats didn’t have to contend with the Republican Party or with a right-of-center electorate. They overwhelmingly favor further investment in the nation’s infrastructure. They want liberalized immigration policies. They decry the wars overseas. They don’t want more taxes, but exploding deficits came up again and again as a top concern. They trust the GOP more on energy, but find their views on social issues distasteful. They blame Republicans more than Democrats for the turn Washington has taken, but care more about engaging citizenry, especially online, than any particular policy, and don’t trust elected representatives to come up with solutions that are outside of their parties orthodoxy.
“If I had to really boil it down—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly,” said John Lumea, a writer and a brand strategist from San Francisco,CA, who became an Americans Elect delegate but kept a blog critical of the process. “I am a liberal thinking independent, and I am attracted to efforts that seem to hold some promise of a politics that will be more connective for people.”
He had been a Democrat, he said, “for years,” but added “my own political journey has been increasingly toward a more independent approach and not aligned with a party.” He was, he said, energized by the post-partisan rhetoric of Mr. Obama’s 2008 election, but saw the rhetoric rendered meaningless when the task of governing began.
“Although to be fair, a lot of people projected that ideal onto him more than he claimed it for himself,” he said. “My personal movement towards a more independent politics was independent of any particular disillusionment with Obama and more a general disillusionment with the whole party system.”
Many people contacted for this story said they were intrigued by Americans Elect because they felt that they could contribute in a real way to the political process in a way that they could not otherwise. It is an odd read: as fewer and fewer people join political parties, the parties are in fact ripe for the kind of take over that Americans Elect delegates say they want. This has already largely happened on the GOP side as more and more state and local Republican parties become vehicles of the Tea Party.
For many Americans Elect supporters, the rise of the Tea Party though was further proof of a pox on both their houses, not proof that the American political system could be transformed by those committed to its reinvention.
“As I see it the Democrats are bad, but the Republicans are worse,” said Mr. Kliensmith. “The Democrats are pretending they would like to compromise, but they know the Republicans won’t, so they try to make it seem like they are better.”
The Democrats problems with centrist voters in general or with Americans Electors are a mirror of their problems heading into November: how to convince them, again, that Obama can rise above the partisan din.
Democrats must hope that the example of Catherine Martone, 58, of Salt Lake City,Utah, is typical.
A military housewife, she found out about Americans Elect online, and was eventually recruited by the group for a photo-op where she hand-delivered the required number of signatures to Utah State Capitol to get the Americas Elect candidate on the ballot.
Months later however she was off the group entirely. The Republican primary had grown “more and more frightening,” and she began to fear that the Americans Elect candidate would peel support from President Obama. Now she is volunteering with the Utah offices of Obama for America, and driving several hours on the weekends to register voters in nearby Colorado.
“I thought that if we could come up with a slate of candidates it would open up the conversation, it would send a message about gridlock,” she said. “I think I may have been wrong. I still want the Democrats to win.”
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