"Americans Elect" May Upend the Presidential Election



Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History (retired), University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com. His film-related books include "Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood," "History By Hollywood," and "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy."

We don’t hear much in the news media about a third choice for voters in the 2012 presidential election. Commentators devote almost exclusive attention on the race between Democrat Barack Obama and a yet-to-be-determined Republican. But a new Internet-based organization may change that situation. It aims to challenge the two-party structure of Washington politics. Americans Elect is gathering millions of signatures in an effort to place its candidates in the presidential debates and secure their names on ballots in all 50 states.

Americans Elect could affect the 2012 election outcome. Its candidates are unlikely to win the White House, but the organization’s campaign may skew the November voting. Its participation could benefit one of the major political parties.

Sometimes candidates who run for president outside of the two-party system make a significant impact. Theodore Roosevelt’s third party candidacy on the Bull Moose ticket in the 1912 facilitated the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Ross Perot’s involvement in the 1992 presidential race drew voters away from both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton but probably hurt the Republican more. If Ralph Nader –- operating outside the two-party system -- had not drawn away votes from Al Gore, especially in the state of Florida, George W. Bush might have lost the 2000 election.

Supporters of Americans Elect deny that the organization’s involvement in the 2012 election will benefit Republicans or Democrats. Instead, they promote their cause as a non-partisan reform movement. Americans Elect’s website says, “The country needs leaders who will put their country before their party, and American interests before special interests.” Many of the organization’s backers argue that the country needs to break away from the ideological divisions of left and right.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman praises Americans Elect. He claims the movement has the potential to shake up traditional politics in Washington like Amazon.com revolutionized books and the iPod transformed music. Americans Elect could smash the duopoly that has controlled the presidential nominating process since before the Civil War, argues Friedman. Its participation in the 2012 election offers hope to moderate independents, Democrats and Republicans. Americans Elect allows people of the “middle” to challenge the left and right “with the best ideas on how to deal with the debt, education and jobs.”

How do participants in Americans Elect expect to challenge traditional politics?

Using sophisticated online voting apparatus, the organization will enable millions of Americans to nominate candidates and identify issues. It will run its own primary elections. To ensure bipartisanship, any candidate who runs for president in its primaries must choose a vice presidential candidate from outside their party. By this summer, Americans Elect will finish its nominating process and publicize a ticket.

Lots of names are currently under consideration in discussions about presidential candidates. Favorites include former New Jersey Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Oklahoma governor and senator David Boren, a Democrat (both are active in the organization). Also mentioned are Buddy Roemer (a Louisiana governor who switched from Democrat to Republican), Erskine Bowles, Chief of Staff in Bill Clinton’s White House, Jon Huntsman, recently a Republican presidential candidate, and Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former senator from Nebraska. Ron Paul’s name has appeared, too. Some of the organization’s insiders would like to back a superstar such as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg or NBC’s former newscaster Tom Brokaw.

The leaders of Americans Elect deserve praise for their idealism, but the practical effect of their participation in the 2012 election could weaken the cause of moderation in U.S. politics.

If Americans Elect’s candidates win a place in the presidential and vice-presidential debates and perform well, the media attention showered on them would probably boost their performance in state voting on November 6. Even though it is unlikely that Americans Elect’s nominees would secure an electoral victory, they could skew the election results in states where Democrats and Republicans run a close race. Americans Elect’s candidates would syphon votes from the leader and the party with the more moderate agenda – Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Americans Elect’s impact is not likely to be equally distributed between the two parties, because the organization’s characterization of the gridlock in Washington is fundamentally mistaken. Leaders at Americans Elect portray the two parties as roughly equal in commitments to extremism. They offer their own movement as a remedy for Americans who want to promote the politics of the middle. Yet the two parties are not equally engaged to partisan excess. In debates about international affairs, economic policy, and cultural issues, the Democrats are more genuinely a party of moderation than the GOP. The Democrats’ positions on dealing with Iran, managing the economy, and negotiating on women’s reproductive issues, to name just a few examples, have been much more nuanced and tempered than the Republicans’ positions. Over the years Democrats have also been substantially more supportive of campaign finance reform than the Republicans.

Economist Paul Krugman points out the absurdity of the “cult of balance” which suggests the parties are equally extreme and “equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts.” If one party declared the earth is flat, Krugman quipped, headlines would read, “Views Differ in Shape of the Planet.” In Krugman’s judgment, extremism is not equally present across the political divide. It is the Republicans who most notably sound like advocates of a flat-earth theory.

The organizers of Americans Elect are engaged in a commendable cause, but their participation in the 2012 presidential election has the potential to undermine the very reforms they wish to achieve. Rather than promote moderation, their campaign could boost the fortunes of radicals. If they tip the election in the Republicans’ favor, Tea Party extremists, ultras of social conservatism, and other militants will likely feel empowered by their good fortune. The election would produce yet another setback for the politics of the “middle.”

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