Thomas Fitzgerald: So much for third parties

Ron Paul was among the leading vote-getters when online balloting was halted Tuesday.
Ron Paul was among the leading vote-getters when online balloting was halted Tuesday. (BEN MARGOT / AP)

Despite high voter anger, the push for a centrist alternative fizzles.

Posted: May 21, 2012

Economic anxiety is rampant. Partisan gridlock has driven public esteem of Congress lower than a snake's belly. Healthy percentages of Americans tell pollsters they hate partisanship, want an alternative to Republicans and Democrats, and would consider an independent candidate for president.

And yet Americans Elect, the celebrated effort to build a centrist movement, fizzled on the launchpad.

The reform group had a presidential nomination all wrapped and tied in a pretty bow. It spent about $35 million on marketing, campaign technology, and ballot access; as of last week, Americans Elect was already on the general-election ballot in 29 states.

All that was missing was a candidate.

Organizers were unable to persuade any big names - or lesser names with deep pockets - to run for president. None of those who did compete in the group's Internet-based "primary" was able to draw 10,000 clicks, the threshold needed to qualify for the next round of voting.

Among the names floated: Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire New York City mayor who is a fiscal hawk but tolerant on social issues; former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; moderate Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R., Maine); and Jon Huntsman, who flamed out in the Republican presidential primaries.

The highest vote-getters when online balloting was halted Tuesday were Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian hero who'd sought the GOP nomination, and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Democrat-turned-Republican who says special-interest money is corrupting politics.

Mark McKinnon, a GOP consultant advising the group, blamed the "poisonous environment" of politics today for the failure.

Perhaps. But Americans Elect was not planning to raise money for its eventual nominee (one reason its dream candidate was a self-funder). Whoever won would have had to bankroll a campaign from scratch, with no national organization.

"You'd need to have someone with unlimited resources," said Democratic consultant David Dunphy. "It's like jump-starting a new hair spray or shampoo or soap - you would have to spend a ton of money to even get people to pay attention." That's a considerable irony, since people frustrated with the two-party system often cite the sheer amount of money in the process as one of its evils.

More to the point, experts say the idea of a centrist uprising has mostly been a fantasy of Acela-riding elites. Outside the Northeast Corridor, few Americans were enthused about the effort. The two parties persist, in part, because they do represent competing interests and ideologies, and have proved adept at co-opting rebellions.

"What Americans Elect is advocating is more procedural than policy-oriented or ideological," said Philip Paolino, a political scientist at the University of North Texas who has studied third-party movements. "Their main issue is that Washington doesn't work - but 'bipartisanship' is not the type of rallying issue people get behind. "It's just not going to light the fire."

The strongest third-party runs are those that coalesce around magnetic leaders and draw from a well of disaffected voters. They are populist, edgy in tone.

Ross Perot, for instance, spent $73 million in 1992 and railed against the federal deficit, earning 18.9 percent of the vote; people still debate whether he ensured Bill Clinton's election. In 1968, George Wallace took 13.5 percent and five Southern states with his campaign against federal activism on civil rights, as well as domestic disorder. And Teddy Roosevelt, then an ex-president, ran on the Progressive line against the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism in 1912. (He got a little over 20 percent of the vote.)

Those third-party runs had this in common: They represented important points of view that supporters thought major parties were ignoring - and they left marks.

Perot helped make deficit reduction a priority for Clinton and the GOP leaders who won control of the House in 1994 for the first time in decades. Roosevelt insured the defeat of Republican President William Taft; more broadly, T.R.'s Bull Moose Progressives, along with the Populists of the left, brought a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, and the modern regulatory state.

This year, at least, Mitt Romney and President Obama offer dramatically different views of the federal government's role. Romney says it should get out of the way of business, removing taxes and regulations that hurt economic growth. Obama speaks up for government intervention to ensure a social safety net and public investments.

The centrist revolt may have to wait. It's hard to carry pitchforks on the Acela.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter.

Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"

at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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