In a city that thrives on power, being attacked is often a sign that you have some. So in mid-December, when President Obama’s advisers took aim at Americans Elect, a bipartisan clutch of political elites planning to bankroll a third candidate in the 2012 presidential election, the group’s members reacted with dramatized indignation that couldn’t quite disguise their glee. “On the left, the Democrats are worried,” says Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton’s former pollster and a frequent Obama critic. “On the right, the Republicans are worried. That tells us we are doing something right.”
What Americans Elect has done is fashion a new twist to the quadrennial quest for a credible third-party contender. Instead of an outside party, it has crafted a parallel nominating process: a nonpartisan online convention. Anyone with a valid ID and an Internet hookup is eligible to become a “delegate,” and candidates can either register by completing a questionnaire or be drafted by popular support. Through a series of online ballots, the slate of contenders will be whittled down to six in April, and then to a single winner in June. In keeping with the group’s shibboleths, the nominee must tap a member of a different party as a running mate, forming a “unity ticket” that will occupy the chasm in the political center.
For a political start-up, Americans Elect has Establishment-grade cash and credentials. Its roster is dotted with veterans of Washington warfare, both Democrats and Republicans, who have grown weary of both parties’ penchant for pandering to their fringes. Schoen recently authored a column that cast Occupy Wall Street as a “radical” uprising that was “dangerously out of touch” with American values. Another adviser, Mark McKinnon, served as George W. Bush’s media strategist but declined to reprise the role in 2008 out of respect for Obama. Also on the group’s board are a battery of business executives; Dennis Blair, Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence; and Christine Todd Whitman, the moderate former Republican governor of New Jersey. A framed column by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which predicted that the group would do to politics “what Amazon.com did to books,” hangs in the hallway of its airy 10th-floor suite, from which you can glimpse a sliver of the White House three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Third-party candidates have played the part of presidential spoiler memorably in the past. Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, and Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes to stymie Al Gore in 2000. But with Washington gripped by gridlock, Americans Elect believes its model meets the demands of the political marketplace. “This year is going to be unique,” says CEO Kahlil Byrd, a Republican strategist who served a stint under Massachusetts’ Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, as well as a term on the Council of Foreign Relations. “People are very receptive to the idea of two people, perhaps from very different sides of the political aisle, coming together and putting down their natural instinct for partisanship to lift up the issues they’re concerned about.”
Americans Elect has amassed more than 75% of the 2.9 million signatures required to grace the ballot in all 50 states and mined its connections to net $22 million of the estimated $35 million needed to finance the experiment. Though nearly 5,000 people have chipped in so far, the bulk of the group’s war chest comes from about 50 wealthy donors. In a way, Americans Elect represents an unlikely alliance between clashing socioeconomic factions, with the 1% bulldozing the barriers to ballot access so that the 99% can pick a President — perhaps someone who hails from their own ranks, for a change.