Americans Elect Shows How Third-Party Campaigns Have Hit a Ceiling

Experts call reform parties a "zombie dream" that are "destined for failure."

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Buddy Roemer speaks in Waukee, Iowa. Roemer was one of the candidates running for president as part of Americans Elect ticket.

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Just because the latest multi-million dollar attempt to create a bipartisan presidential ticket fizzled this week because no viable candidates emerged doesn't mean similar attempts won't be made in the future, a fact that has some political experts cringing.

Americans Elect, which had spent more than a year working to gain ballot access in all 50 states for a yet-to-be named candidate, conceded Thursday that no one had reached their self-imposed goal of 10,000 votes of support, causing the group to pull the plug on their effort.

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The organization's attempt to circumvent the country's two political parties by nominating a moderate candidate improved upon similar efforts made by other groups in the past. The group was officially on the ballot in nearly 30 states and expected to win certification in a number of others, an endeavor that takes millions of dollars and scores of organized volunteers who gather signatures.

But David Karpf, a political science professor at Rutgers University who specializes in technology, says Americans Elect is as far as any such third-party effort will ever get.

"It's a zombie dream which has died a few times over," he says. "I'm sure we'll see it again in the future, but it's not well thought through. It neither understands how a democracy works, nor how the Internet works, and so it's destined for failure."

Karpf says every four years, wealthy donors who are fed up with the polarization of American politics spend money attempting to either create a moderate third party or draft a moderate candidate. They are fueled by polling data showing that most Americans are centrists, but he says these attempts are hobbled by the fact that the country is polarized because those in the center are sitting on the sidelines.

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"It's almost never a good year for trying to use the Internet to get radical centrists to form a mass movement," Karpf says. "The challenge is the average American is centrist, but also not paying a lot of attention. The people paying attention to politics tend to pick a side."

Supporters of Americans Elect say they are disappointed, but tried to put a positive spin on their efforts.

"We're gratified, but not satisfied," says former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a moderate Republican serving on the group's advisory board.

Whitman says it was challenging to recruit well-established political figures to run in the face of their national parties.

"I'm not terribly surprised that we've had this difficulty," she says. "It means they've got to stand up and say, 'I don't like what's happening, I don't think the process is working in the right way.' And that takes some doing, I mean, you are standing up to your party."

But she admits the same fallacy with the Americans Elect vision that Karpf points out.

"At the end of the day, democracy is all about citizen participation and unfortunately, when I go and speak at events I say, 'If you want to know where the problem occurs, look in the mirror,' because we have such an abysmal voting record," Whitman says.

Continued attempts to create moderate candidacies that do not kowtow to party lines during primary season is critical, she adds.

"That's really unhealthy for the country and that's what bothers me more than anything else. It's so bad for democracy to have this sort of polarization," Whitman says. "[Primaries] are really what pushes politicians to some of these positions we've seen that I don't believe are necessarily where they would be if they didn't have to do stake them out to get a nomination."

Karpf says he's supportive of efforts to de-radicalize politics, but says a more effective means would be to put money in groups like No Labels, which is pushing for institutional changes—such as eliminating the Senate filibuster—that would make it easier to effectively govern.

"They wasted their money. If we want to make our democracy work better, then the people who are willing to invest in that ought to invest their money more effectively," he says. "This thing is never going to work."