Americans Elect, a privately financed group attempting to run a major third-party candidate for the White House, won a spot on California's 2012 ballot Monday, a milestone in its quest to give voters an alternative to President Obama and his Republican challenger.
California is the 12th state to award Americans Elect a ballot line in the 2012 presidential race. The group hopes its ticket will appear on the ballot in all 50 states. To earn its place on the California ballot, Americans Elect submitted the signatures of more than 1 million registered voters.
An Americans Elect spokeswoman said the group had already won presidential ballot lines in five key electoral states — Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Colorado and Nevada — as well as six others: Utah, Mississippi, Kansas, Arkansas, Alaska and Arizona. Americans Elect plans to nominate its candidates for president and vice president through online balloting in June.
"It is clear that voters are receptive to more choices, more competition, and the reason is that the Democratic and Republican officeholders are not meeting their needs," said Darry Sragow, a longtime California Democratic strategist who is a senior advisor to the group.
The history of third-party presidential contenders over the last century has been one of failure, even for those who mounted high-profile campaigns: Theodore Roosevelt lost in 1912, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Ralph Nader in every election since 1996.
But they can act as spoilers for either of the two major parties. Perot is widely seen as helping Bill Clinton unseat Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Democrats often accuse Nader of keeping Democrat Al Gore from scoring an electoral college victory over George W. Bush in 2000.
So far, the only well-known figure to express interest in the Americans Elect ballot line is former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, whose run for the Republican presidential nomination has sputtered. Party organizers are hoping a more viable — and preferably wealthy — candidate will emerge, such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Obama advisors acknowledge that Americans Elect will influence the 2012 race, and they have already sought to discredit the effort.
In a briefing for reporters last week in Washington, David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, called the party's nominating process "unfathomable." He mocked a screening panel that Americans Elect will use to rule on the qualification of any candidate who is not automatically eligible for its presidential nomination by virtue of being an elected official, Cabinet member, military officer or president of a university or labor union.
"It's a little bit odd," Axelrod said, "because it's supposed to be the most democratic nominating process ever, except there's a board of censors to decide who is actually worthy of the nomination or not. So it's kind of like uber-democracy meets backroom bosses."
Also challenging for Americans Elect, at least politically, is its refusal to identify donors to what it says is a $30-million campaign to secure a spot on the ballots of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Americans Elect's chairman is Peter Ackerman, who was right-hand man to junk-bond trader Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s. That could leave the impression of Wall Street backing at a time when the finance industry is unpopular.
Sragow said some donors prefer anonymity because they fear retribution for trying to "open the doors to the political process."
"This is not a cabal," he said. "This is not a conspiracy. This is a desire to help this country."
The group's board of advisors includes bipartisan corporate and political leaders, such as Mark McKinnon, a senior campaign advisor to President George W. Bush, and Gerald Rafshoon, White House communications director for President Carter.