WASHINGTON — An old cause received a new twist last week when several veteran political operatives launched an Internet campaign to create a competitor to the two major parties that have dominated U.S. politics for 150 years.
The effort, dubbed Unity08, aims to enlist millions of Americans for an online primary to nominate a centrist, third-party ticket for the 2008 presidential race.
"Increasingly, extreme elements of both parties dominate," said Hamilton Jordan, one of the organizers and the former chief of staff for President Carter. "We are left with options that leave a large number of [voters] in a situation where they don't like the choices they have."
The initiative faces immense hurdles -- no new party has established itself as a sustained force in American politics since the Republicans emerged during the struggle over slavery in the 1850s.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Third party: An article in Section A on June 5 about efforts to form an independent political party via the Internet identified Michael Cornfield as a political analyst at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Cornfield no longer works for the group; he is a vice president at ElectionMall Technologies Inc., a nonpartisan technology company.
But Unity08 sponsors contend that they can succeed where others have failed largely because the Internet makes it easier and less expensive to reach and organize potential supporters.
"Why now? Because the technology allows it," said another organizer, Angus King, who as an independent served two terms as Maine's governor.
If nothing else, the effort could help answer two questions: Is there a substantial constituency of moderate voters alienated from the highly partisan and polarized politics that defines Washington? And can a centrist political movement be organized through the Internet, which so far has been used more by partisan and ideological voices?
Few analysts doubt the existence of discontent with the Democratic and Republican parties, but many are dubious that the Unity08 initiative can harvest it.
"I call them the unicorn party -- it's sheer fantasy," said Michael Cornfield, an expert in online politics at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "No candidate, no money, no position on Iraq; to me it's escapism."
Similarly, Tom Matzzie, Washington director for MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group, said disaffection with intense partisanship was probably too diffuse a motivation to drive the third-party effort.
"On the Internet side, it is hard to imagine anything getting started in the absence of a charismatic leader or a moment of crisis or urgency," Matzzie said. "Political movements aren't jump-started by consultants who buy ad space on Google."
The Unity08 effort contains some familiar names, but none has recently been at the center of political life.
The best-known figures on the group's Founders Council include Jordan, who along with his work for Carter helped direct Ross Perot's 1992 independent presidential campaign; King, who governed Maine from 1994 to 2002; Gerald Rafshoon, Carter's media advisor; Doug Bailey, an advisor to President Ford who later founded the online political newsletter the Hotline; and Roger Craver, a veteran direct-mail consultant for Democratic and liberal causes.
The idea grew out of conversations last year among Rafshoon, Jordan and Bailey. Their underlying assumption is that millions of Americans consider both parties too doctrinaire and ideological and would consider an alternative that promised moderate compromises on the big problems facing the nation.
In a poll conducted for the group, Princeton Survey Research Associates found that more than four-fifths of Americans agreed with the statement that the nation "has become so polarized ... that Washington can't seem to make progress."
"The American middle is the biggest single unserved consumer market in America today," said David S. Maney, a Denver investment banker helping to organize the group.
In trying to construct a durable alternative to the two major parties, Unity08 is facing a challenge that has stumped political leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to Perot.
In the last 100 years, third-party challengers have attracted double-digit support in the presidential race four times: Roosevelt in 1912, Sen. Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin in 1924, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968 and Perot in 1992. But none of their parties sustained their relevancy.
The Unity08 effort is challenging the widespread belief among political experts that the most effective third parties need a vivid and compelling leader to coalesce around, such as Roosevelt or Perot. The organizers of the new effort are trying to build the party and then find a candidate to lead it.
The group plans to encourage supporters to sign up at www.unity08.com, and then recruit volunteers from that list who would collect the signatures needed to qualify the party's slate for spots on the 50 state ballots in the 2008 presidential election. After that, it intends to award the presidential nomination through an online primary during the first half of 2008, a process that will be open to all registered voters who joined the group, Jordan said.
The founders say only "mixed" tickets will be allowed to compete -- those containing presidential and vice presidential candidates drawn from each of the major parties or independents.
Rather than drafting a statement of principles or a platform in advance, the group says it will rely on its nominees to define its policy agenda.
Avoiding a clear stand on issues such as Iraq and energy policy could help attract Americans who share a discontent with the political system but don't agree on much else, some experts say. But others say it will be difficult to build a mass movement behind a cause no more explicit than reducing partisanship.
"Maybe that's enough for the short term, but it's hard to find an example of a political party that has been organized simply around dissatisfaction," said GOP consultant Terry Nelson.