A political group outside the two major parties has been flying below the radar this election season: Americans Elect. The group, which is trying to run the first online primary, says its goal is to choose a presidential ticket and get it on the ballot in all 50 states.
So far, the group has gotten on the ballot in more than half the states. But picking a candidate is proving more of a challenge.
The people who run Americans Elect say they represent the neglected middle of the political spectrum. They say they speak for voters who care more about solving problems than winning partisan battles.
So Americans Elect created an online process for ordinary citizens to nominate a presidential candidate outside the two-party system.
The group has attracted some big-name supporters: New Jersey Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who was once governor; William Webster, former head of both the CIA and FBI; top brass at big companies like Starbucks and E-Trade; and scholars, like Harvard's Lawrence Lessig.
Lessig says he "was originally quite opposed to what they were trying to do because I thought it was nothing more than an opportunity for a spoiler."
Lessig was wary of political mischief — someone trying to run a third-party candidate primarily to hurt the chances of a major party nominee. But after thinking about it, Lessig says, he decided the most important issue to him is overhauling the election system itself.
"It became clear this was maybe the only way to get this issue before the American people — or at least to get it into a context where the two major party candidates had to address it," he says. "And the elegance of what Americans Elect had created then seemed to be a perfect path for that objective."
There are a few problems, though. The biggest one? Americans Elect has had trouble finding top-tier candidates willing to run. The most popular name on the group's website right now is Ron Paul, the Republican candidate who has said no to both the Libertarian Party and to Americans Elect.
Among those willing to run, the most popular right now is ex-GOP presidential candidate and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer — hardly a household name.
But the CEO of Americans Elect, Kahlil Byrd, says there may be fresh candidates coming on board in the next few weeks. That could help attract the attention of more voters, who Byrd says are looking for leaders.
"They're not inspired by the idea of creating another party or centrism, etc. A few people are, but most people are not," he says. "What they're inspired by is the idea of leaders stepping up and actually doing things that help the jobs situation."
So why hasn't it taken off?
"For me, I think it's very sensitive at this point to candidates emerging," he says.
Another cloud that's hovered over the new group is its refusal to name its financial backers. Americans Elect is organized as a nonprofit group, under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Because it isn't a political party, it isn't required to tell where its millions of dollars come from.
It could volunteer that information, but it doesn't.
When asked why, Byrd says: "What we found as we were going and standing up the organization is that there was the deepest concern amongst people who had been very successful in this world ... that those who are in power or who work in politics would use this as an opportunity for retribution. So we gave people a choice."
There's another money problem here: Americans Elect has pledged its largest donors that it will pay them most of their money back. The idea, according to the group, is that no one donor would have disproportionate control over the process. But functionally, it means that any money smaller donors give to Americans Elect isn't adding to its funds — it's going to pay back the original wealthy donors.
Matt Bennett of the centrist think tank Third Way says the biggest problem Americans Elect has right now is that it doesn't have a candidate yet.
"If there was a public face for Americans Elect, then people would be able to decide where they stand," Bennett says. "If it was somebody truly centrist and different and a breath of fresh air, that would be one thing. Or, if it looked like sort of a party hack who was trying to revive an otherwise failing presidential campaign, that'd be another."
With no public face, voters can't tell what the group stands for, Bennett says. And since Americans Elect won't disclose its donors, a politically skeptical public may not take it at its word.
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