A few weeks ago I wrote about an effort to put a centrist "third party" candidate on the presidential ballot next year, launched by an organization called Americans Elect. The privately funded group plans to stage a wide-open primary on the Internet, to enable voters to choose a ticket drawn from the middle of the political spectrum. Voters can propose anyone they like, but the process is designed for potential centrist candidates such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
That column provoked a torrent of questions from readers. Some asked: Isn't this just a Republican plot to seduce independents away from President Obama? Others asked: Isn't this just a Democratic plot to seduce moderates away from the GOP?
These are fair questions in an age in which seemingly benign proposals sometimes conceal hidden agendas. So I did some more digging to find out who is behind Americans Elect and what it's really after.
The answer will disappoint anyone who likes a good conspiracy. It's just a collection of dissatisfied moderates, both Republicans and Democrats, who want to shake up the political system — and who don't really know whether their project will help one side or the other next year.
Americans Elect plans to hold its national primary election in the spring. It envisions several rounds of Internet voting, with nominees from the electorate (candidates can nominate themselves too). Anyone can vote; the group hopes to arrive at a final nominee in June.
The group's advisory board includes prominent Republicans such as Mark McKinnon, who worked for the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. But it also includes Democrats such as Will Marshall, a longtime activist in the "Third Way" wing of the Democratic Party.
Both of them said it's impossible to predict the impact of their effort, but their aim is to give voters more options, not throw the election one way or the other. "I'm for anything that disrupts the system," McKinnon told me last week. "What we've got now clearly isn't working."
But could a centrist ticket swing the election toward Obama, or away from him? "You can make the case either way," he said.
Said Marshall: "If I thought a third choice would swing the election to someone like Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann, I wouldn't be involved; I'd probably vote for Obama. But this is terra incognita."
Actually, there is some precedent, and it suggests that both major parties could be hurt more or less equally. The last two presidential elections in which incumbents lost were in 1992 (George H.W. Bush) and 1980 (Jimmy Carter), and both included third-party candidates (H. Ross Perot in 1992, John B. Anderson in 1980). But exit polls suggest that Perot and Anderson drew votes from both sides; they weren't the deciding factors.
Inquiring minds will want to follow the money. Americans Elect was launched and bankrolled by Peter Ackerman, who made a fortune in the 1980s as an associate of junk-bond king Michael Milken. Ackerman, who has contributed to candidates of both parties in the past, made his biggest mark supporting democratic movements overseas. He founded a nonprofit called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and served as chairman of Freedom House, another nonprofit that promotes democracy abroad. He's been active in Serbia, the former Soviet Union and the Arab world; now, associates say, he's trying to do the same thing here.
"There's no hidden agenda," said Larry Diamond, a scholar of democracy at Stanford University who's known Ackerman for a decade. "I know it's hard for people to imagine that anyone would put millions of dollars into a project purely because they think the political system is broken, but that's what he's done."
So Americans Elect isn't a grass-roots movement like the tea party or Occupy Wall Street. It's top-down, with wealthy donors and a board of directors and an intimidating book of bylaws. But those Wall Street characteristics could help keep it from being hijacked by the left or the right.
If, say, Texas Rep. Ron Paul signed up to run in the Americans Elect primary, his immense grass-roots following might win the day. But Americans Elect's bylaws allow its directors to disqualify a candidate who doesn't fit the organization's centrist purposes. Their decision can be overturned by a two-thirds vote of Internet participants, but that's a high bar to clear.
Who might qualify? In addition to Bloomberg, Huntsman and Bayh, McKinnon cited Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), former Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.); former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles; former Govs. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey; NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
Could any of them fire up the electorate? Anything's possible. Who would have predicted a few months ago that Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich could look like viable presidential candidates this year?
"We want our best and brightest to step forward into political life," McKinnon noted. "But the primary system discourages many of the best people from participating. If … they can run for president without having to run in the primaries, a lot of them will be interested."
In other words, this could be a way to improve our presidential gene pool, if not in 2012 then in later years, if the idea takes hold.
It may not work, of course. Americans Elect could still turn out to be more a spoiler than a source of new blood. But it just might reduce the polarization that has infected the two major traditional parties and paralyzed Washington. And that means it's worth a try.