Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer is among the leading candidates actively… (Gerald Herbert, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — An ambitious effort to launch a third-party presidential ticket this fall has foundered, done in by its inability to attract a top-tier candidate and the grass-roots support necessary to power its novel online nominating process.
Despite the backing of heavyweight political and business leaders and a $15-million effort to get on the ballot across the country, Americans Elect announced Tuesday that none of its potential candidates mustered the minimum support needed to qualify for the group's primary.
That leaves the nonpartisan organization in an odd and unprecedented situation: It is already on the general election ballot in 29 states, including California — giving it greater reach than the Green Party — but it does not have a ticket.
The group's leaders are meeting Wednesday to consider their options and plan to make an announcement Thursday. In a statement, Chief Executive Kahlil Byrd said there was "an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate emerge from this process."
But nominating a candidate without a primary would require the board to change its rules, a move that could trigger criticism that the process was being changed in midstream.
Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and onetime political director of the group, said that it would be "incredibly frustrating and disappointing" to abandon the 2-year-old, $35-million project now. But he cautioned that any changes to the process would have to be done carefully, adding that "there will be shots fired at the Americans Elect candidate based on how that candidate got the nomination."
It's a deflating scenario for a group that pledged to break the lock of the Democratic and Republican parties and field a viable independent presidential candidate, selected through a secure online nomination convention.
But Americans Elect's secretive process — including its refusal to identify its donors — and top-down approach hobbled its attempts to trigger grass-roots enthusiasm. Historically, third-party or independent bids like that of H. Ross Perot in 1992 have gained momentum because of the individual running, not merely the concept of an alternative.
"At the very least, you need a visible and skilled candidate," said Walter Stone, professor of political science at UC Davis who studies third-party movements. "In some ways, they have the cart before the horse."
Even the most popular draft candidate on the Americans Elect website — Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who continues to pursue his party's nomination for president — is shy the required 10,000 clicks of online support to make it onto the ballot, despite the efforts of some Paul supporters to rally support for his candidacy. And former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who is actively seeking the group's nomination, has managed to muster only about 6,000 clicks of support. That's a small fraction of the more than 420,000 people who signed up on the website to be delegates.
The group's backers are puzzled that Americans Elect has not been met with more enthusiasm.
"When you can go to someone of national stature and say, 'Here's an opportunity to put yourself before the electorate with no need to spend five minutes in the primaries,' I would think you probably would have had five world-class candidates," said David Albertson, a commodities trader in Florida who donated to the group and is on its Board of Advisors. "But it didn't happen."
Americans Elect gave private briefings to dozens of politicians and other public figures, but few were willing to step forward. The group's advisors said some feared retribution by the Democratic and Republican establishments.
"Good and qualified people simply aren't willing to subject themselves to the poisonous environment that exists today," said Mark McKinnon, a Republican political strategist who also sits on the group's Board of Advisors.
But some political experts challenged the very premise that Americans Elect was built on — that there is a hunger for a centrist party.
Third-party and independent movements "appeal to the myth that there is this underlying consensus out there that the [major] parties are just ignoring. And that's fundamentally false," Stone said. "Parties differ because they tap into differing constituencies with different values, different interests and ideologies."
Americans Elect grew out of a similar effort called Unity08, which attempted to launch an independent presidential ticket in 2008.