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Why the Third-Party Dream Remains Just That

By Scott Conroy - December 12, 2013

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In that effort, Americans Elect faced intense blowback from campaign finance watchdogs for acting in the manner of a political party, but retaining a key benefit of non-profit organizations: the ability to keep its donors anonymous.

But the ends would justify the means, or so the internal thinking went.

Next, the group launched an extensive ballot access initiative in all 50 states and an innovative, Web-based nominating process that it promised would result in a viable 2012 presidential candidate. After substantial media fanfare and gaining ballot access in 26 states, no big-name presidential contender was willing to step forward, and the group conceded defeat in May of last year, announcing that no candidate had reached its viability threshold.

Kellen Arno, who was Americans Elect’s national field director, said chatter in the group’s well-staffed Washington, D.C., headquarters often centered on the pitfalls of the so-called “Nader effect,” a reference to Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy tipping the balance in the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

“So if I was talking to a Democrat at the time, yeah, they were frustrated with the president, but God forbid they vote for a third-party candidate and the president ends up losing because of a split vote,” Arno said. “And you’d hear the exact same thing if you were talking to a Republican. So I think we’re at a stage right now where people are frustrated, but they’re not so frustrated that they’re willing to be sort of cavalier with a vote and risk an unintended backlash.”

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When Americans Elect began its efforts, organizers believed that gaining ballot access in all 50 states would be their biggest challenge. As it turned out, the signature-gathering process, the parameters of which are unique to each state, was indeed as onerous and costly as they imagined it would be.

But in the end, the piece of the puzzle that the group initially assumed would fall into place relatively neatly -- attracting a candidate who could actually win the race -- proved the most unworkable element of the entire enterprise.

“We had the money and the people to achieve 50-state ballot access,” said Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd. “But of all the people we briefed on this idea who would’ve been credible candidates, to a person they all decided not to do it. And I guess that attests to their sanity because they knew that they were going to be in a brawl with the two parties, especially if they got serious and got some traction.”

The organization’s fizzle came four years after a similarly minded organization, Unity08, failed to gain much interest and also collapsed.

There is a key reason, it turns out, why the last viable third-party presidential candidate was Ross Perot in 1992: He was a self-starting billionaire. In other words, the candidate came first and the organization followed. And on the presidential level, it appears that’s the way it has to be.

Currently, there may be only one person with both limitless financial resources and instant national credibility who would be capable of a Perot-style campaign in 2016. And he just happens to be out of a job next month.

“If Michael Bloomberg decided today he wanted to run for president, he wouldn’t lose because he couldn’t get on the ballot -- put it that way,” Arno said.

The outgoing 71-year-old New York mayor, however, does not appear to have a presidential run on his to-do list.

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But might there be some wiggle room at a different level of politics?

The Centrist Project is the latest non-profit, 501(c)(4) group to take its shot at building an infrastructure to claim the ideological middle. The group’s co-founder, Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan, laid out his ideas for this new venture in a book published last spring, “The Centrist Manifesto.”

At the heart of this group’s approach to a familiar challenge is the conclusion that previous third-party movements have aimed either too high or too low.

“What we believe is that you need to pick the right target,” said Christie Findlay, the organization’s executive director. “[Americans Elect] tried for president, and they also never really galvanized the country behind what they were doing. A lot of third-party projects or organizations focus on very, very local elections to build up a power base and slowly work their way up, but as a result they’re spending all their time and energy focusing on super-local issues, and that’s not galvanizing nationally.”

Though organizers declined to provide a timeline for their goals or parameters by which success will be judged, the Centrist Project is focused on one day fielding a pragmatic-minded independent candidate who can win a U.S. Senate seat.

“The Senate is an attractive sell for people who have had success in other fields: in philanthropy, the military, industry, and the tech sector,” Findlay said. “People who are executive-level innovators aren’t interested in running for the House. They’re not interested in running for city council, and they see the presidency as too far of a long shot. So let’s start at the Senate level.”

The Centrist Project is currently ramping up its fundraising arm and taking steps toward forming an offshoot super PAC. While it hasn’t ruled out launching a candidate in next year’s midterms, the project is a decidedly long-term endeavor.

Findlay brimmed with optimism about the prospect that her group may have finally cracked the third-party code, but she was also realistic when asked about the structural and institutional headwinds this latest attempt will meet.

“I don’t have the answer to it,” she said. “If you talk to someone who does have the answer, please let me know because I think the answer is the solution to what we’re facing as a country.” 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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