What happens if you start a political party and nobody comes? Six months ago, a newfangled third party burst onto the scene, full of hope and promise. It was called Americans Elect, and it sought to give voters a choice many said they were looking for: “centrist” candidates who could break the partisan gridlock paralyzing Washington. In its founders’ heads danced visions of middle-of-the-road candidates who could transform American politics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg, Jon Huntsman Jr. Wealthy donors invested millions in a fancy website for an Internet primary, signed up 420,000 would-be “delegates” and got on the ballot in 29 states. Newspaper columnists, including me, pondered what effect it might have on the election. Then the grand idea collided with reality.
Americans Elect’s website is still humming, and its lawyers are still working to get the party on the ballot in all 50 states. But it’s missing two essentials: a viable candidate and enthusiastic voters. In an embarrassing setback, not enough voters registered support for any of the fantasy candidates to meet the threshold for nomination. The top vote-getter was Republican candidate Ron Paul, but he says he isn’t interested in a third-party run. Among the few public figures who were willing to play, the top vote-getter was former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Democrat turned Republican; he won the online support of exactly 6,222 people, short of the 10,000 he needed.
It turns out you can’t get many voters excited about a party built by anonymous donors around an abstract concept. Centrist third parties have done respectably in American presidential elections when they were led by charismatic figures; Theodore Roosevelt won 27% of the vote in 1912, and H. Ross Perot won 19% in 1992. But without a charismatic leader, it’s hard to rally people around the banner of moderation.