Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Americans Elect bypasses primaries for moderates

By now, you've probably heard of Americans Elect, the political-reform group funded by a collection of Wall Street executives (some of whom remain anonymous) who hope to field a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2012.

Americans Elect has been amply, but poorly, covered. The part of its strategy that generates the most attention is also the part that's most wrongheaded: an effort to nominate a bipartisan super ticket to contest for the presidency.

This sort of thing is a perennial fantasy. At its best, it's mostly harmless. The candidates run weak campaigns and fade away. At its worst, it can split the vote for reasonable candidates and let extreme politicians slip into office. Either way, it perpetuates a harmful misunderstanding about what's wrong with our political system, and what it will take to fix it.

It's seductive to believe that all Washington needs to thrive is an independent-minded presidential candidate who will expose the folly of partisanship and remind Americans of our shared values and the common good. But it's not true. Just ask Barack Obama, who ran on hope, change and post-partisanship. Ask George W. Bush, who promised to be "a uniter, not a divider." It would be nice if our problems were so superficial that we could solve them with an inspiring campaign and a new occupant in the Oval Office. But governing isn't the last act of an Aaron Sorkin drama.

The political system is, above all, a system. Into this machine we place leaders defined by different partisan affiliations, coalitions, ideas and personalities. Yet it continues to work much the same from year to year, presidency to presidency. If you want change — and polling suggests many Americans do — you can't just move a new person into office. You need to change the system.

Which brings us to the interesting part of what Americans Elect is doing.

Although Americans Elect is often marketed as a third party, its founders point out that it's no such thing. "It's not about dropping your ideological framework," says Elliot Ackerman, chief operating officer of Americans Elect and son of Peter Ackerman, the group's main funder. "That's unnecessary. What is truly the innovation here is the second nominating process."

Here's what he means: The group's real accomplishment is having secured ballot lines in all 50 states. That's not easily done. Different states have different rules for getting on the ballot, and the rules can be both complicated and costly to follow. Kahlil Byrd, chief executive of Americans Elect, estimates that the organization has spent about $15 million clearing ballot hurdles in the states.

Most states let a party remain on the ballot once its candidate has obtained a threshold percentage of the vote. Americans Elect is hoping that its bipartisan ticket will reap a sufficient number of votes in 2012 to ensure ballot access in 2014 and beyond. If not, Americans Elect will have to spend millions more. "What's really important is making sure that this becomes a perpetual effort, that in 2014 and 2016, you see governors and senators and congressmen running on it," Byrd says. That's the point at which Americans Elect moves beyond fantasy tickets and takes aim at the system.

"The problem we have is, members of a political party can't defect," Elliot Ackerman says. "The real reason defections are so difficult is people go home and they're faced by a primary challenger. There's a huge amount of leverage right now on people who fear being primaried."

Primaries are one of the tools used to enforce polarization. You might be a moderate Republican from Delaware, or a moderate Democrat from Colorado, and inclined to cross the aisle fairly frequently. But before you can be judged by the full electorate in Delaware or Colorado, you must win your party's primary. And the voters in that primary are, on the whole, much less moderate than the voters in a general election.

If primaries were easy, candidates could just worry about the general election. But particularly in recent years, and particularly in the Republican Party, primaries have become a serious threat to incumbents. Just ask former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, or former congressman Mike Castle of Delaware, both of whom lost Republican primaries in 2010 to tea party opponents who condemned political moderation. Or ask Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who lost her party's primary that same year to a tea party challenger before running as an independent. With no ballot line to support her candidacy, Murkowski pulled off a rare feat — winning as a write-in candidate.

Americans Elect plans to throw the independent-minded a ballot line. Candidates can run on the Americans Elect line, but still caucus with the Democrats, the Republicans or no party at all. In effect, the goal isn't to create a new party, but to provide a new path for moderate members of the two reigning parties.

Will many politicians — incumbents or newcomers — choose this path? Probably not, and definitely not at first. It increases the likelihood of a three-way race in which Americans Elect candidates would see their support siphoned by whoever gets the nomination of their party, making victory on the Americans Elect line unlikely. It also means that Americans Elect candidates would be cut off from traditional networks for fundraising, volunteer support and campaign expertise, which political parties provide.

But if a high-profile incumbent, under threat of a primary challenge from the far right or left, takes the Americans Elect route, the practice could spread. (Are you listening, Sen. Richard G. Lugar?) In that case, Americans Elect could help undermine one of the major methods by which parties enforce ideological discipline. It might give legislators such as Bennett, Castle and Murkowski a license to cross the aisle — and survive. Then, if nothing else, we'd see more clearly how much polarization is baked into the system, and how much is a product of the particular people inside it.

© 2012 Washington Post

Americans Elect bypasses primaries for moderates 03/25/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Shakeup on Adam Putnam campaign


    In a sign of unsteadiness for what  had  looked like a strong-out-of-the-gate Adam Putnam campaign, the Republican frontrunner suddenly fired his campaign manager and political director. Hard-charging Campaign manager Kristin Davis and political director Jared Small were two of the three outsiders to join …

    Putnam campaigning in Destin the other day as part of his 22-city bus tour
  2. Rays let early lead get away again in loss to Angels (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — As pleased as the Rays were to win consecutive series against the contending Red Sox, Indians and Yankees and to get briefly back over .500, there was a lot of talk in the clubhouse before Monday's game against the Angels that it was time to do better.

    Tampa Bay Rays third base coach Charlie Montoyo (25) high fives designated hitter Corey Dickerson (10) as he rounds third on his lead off home run in the first inning of the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Angels at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Monday, May 22, 2017.
  3. Tampa man arrested for killing man in his USF-area home


    TAMPA — A Tampa man was arrested Monday in the death of man found killed at a home in the University of South Florida area last week, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

    Kadeem Dareem Archibald, 26, was arrested Monday on a  second degree murder charge in the University Area killing of Khando Kerr. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Report: Trump asked intel chiefs to push back against FBI collusion probe after Comey revealed its existence


    President Donald Trump asked two of the nation's top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, the Washington Post reports, citing current and former officials.

    From  left, CIA Director Mike Pompeo; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats; and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers take their seats on Capitol Hill on May 11 before  testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on major threats facing the U.S. [Associated Press]
  5. For Gov. Rick Scott, 'fighting' could mean vetoing entire state budget

    State Roundup

    Every day, Gov. Rick Scott is getting a lot of advice.

    The last time a Florida governor vetoed the education portion of the state budget was in 1983. Gov. Bob Graham blasted fellow Democrats for their “willing acceptance of mediocrity.”