From the April 2012 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

March 26, 2012

The Third Choice

The group Americans Elect draws growing interest — and fire.

Americans Elect is an organization that aims to provide an alternative to the Democratic and Republican candidates in this year’s presidential elections. The group is conducting an Internet-based nominating process this spring, and it seeks to have a line on the November ballot in all 50 states.

Americans Elect presents itself as an antidote to excessive partisanship. Its nominating process is open to all registered voters, and the nominee could be a Democrat, Republican, independent or other. The organization’s rules require that its candidate select, as vice-presidential running mate, someone who is not of the same party.

The organization’s potential to shake up the 2012 race is considerable. For a candidate nominated by this new group to win the presidency this year is very unlikely — though in this volatile political season, not something to be ruled out altogether. But even short of winning, that candidacy could have a significant impact, influencing the debate and perhaps tilting the balance of electoral support from one major-party candidate to the other.

Private-equity executive Peter Ackerman founded Americans Elect in 2010, having led a predecessor effort called Unity08. In mid-2011 the group opened a website to start recruiting voters as delegates, and since early 2012 delegates have been voting to draft potential candidates. Among names the have risen high on the list are Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

Besides draftees, some hopefuls actively seek the Americans Elect nomination. One of these is former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who recently abandoned a bid for the Republican nomination, and who is also running for the nomination of the Reform Party, Ross Perot’s old operation.

Another aspirant is Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who has been profiled at Research magazine and sister publication AdvisorOne.com several times for his contributions on fiscal policy, financial planning and other areas. (Disclosure: having met Kotlikoff and seeing him as an innovative thinker, I clicked my support for his nomination at the Americans Elect website.)

In February, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman touted as a potential candidate David Walker, former comptroller of the United States, who serves on an advisory board to Americans Elect. Walker responded with a statement that stopped short of asking for support but seemed to signal a willingness to serve if drafted.

Causing a Stir

It is a sign of Americans Elect’s prospective importance that the venture already is drawing a good deal of criticism, instead of just being ignored. Moreover, as the group was founded by one financial executive and has backing from others, it is getting caught up in the contentious politics swirling around anything related to Wall Street this year.

Skeptics point out that Americans Elect, while claiming to support a more open political system, allows its donors to remain anonymous; such non-disclosure is legal under the group’s 501(c)(4) designation as a social welfare organization. Americans Elect defends the practice as protecting large contributors, who may do business with the government, from retaliation by vindictive politicians of the major parties.

Also controversial is that the organization’s rules enable a “candidate certification” committee to block contenders who lack appropriate “stature.” The group sees this veto power (which can be overridden by delegates) as a shield against frivolous write-in efforts such as in California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall, when the ballot included a porn star and other dubious candidates.

Such concerns about process have fed into arguments by left-leaning pundits that Americans Elect is a vehicle for financial industry interests. Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect magazine and the Washington Post castigated the group as “Wall Street’s third party” and warned that of the 69 people on a “leadership” list at the Americans Elect website, “fully 20 either head or hold senior executive positions with financial institutions, chiefly hedge funds or private-equity firms.”

Writing at the Huffington Post website last December, Robert Kuttner decried Americans Elect as a “well-funded, faux-reformist group” and “hedge-fund-spawned third party” that could end up running an ultra-high-net-worth candidate such as Bloomberg or Donald Trump. “This is one hell of an exercise in the people taking back their politics,” complained Kuttner.

A recurrent theme of such criticism from the left is that an Americans Elect candidacy would strive for fiscal austerity, reflecting a lack of concern about people in the lower income brackets. After Friedman wrote his column extolling a possible Walker candidacy, Meyerson lamented that the former comptroller general preaches a “gospel of cutting Social Security, Medicare and other government spending.”

 Wild Card

Dark suspicions about ties between Americans Elect and Wall Street are overblown. The financial sector includes many committed Democrats and Republicans, who are unlikely to enthuse over this venture. Plus, there are many on Wall Street for whom a high priority is backing a winner, not joining an uphill crusade.

Moreover, if Americans Elect was designed to be a Wall Street vehicle, its engineers took a considerable risk in building it around a mechanism of online popular voting, especially at a moment of high public dissatisfaction with financial companies.

Indeed, the potential candidates who have risen far on the draftee list are not a particularly finance-friendly assortment. Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders are fervent critics of the financial industry, from respective positions on right and left. As a GOP hopeful, Jon Huntsman proposed to end Too Big To Fail by downsizing the largest financial institutions, an idea sure to spark Wall Street resistance.

Among declared aspirants, there is even less sign of Wall Street machinations. Buddy Roemer last fall released a statement that he stood by Occupy Wall Street. Laurence Kotlikoff, in 2010 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, published a book titled Jimmy Stewart Is Dead: Ending the World’s Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking, denouncing industry practices and calling for a radical restructuring.

On the other hand, there is Mike Bloomberg, a former Wall Streeter who removed Occupy Wall Street from its Zuccotti Park hangout. If he ends up as the nominee, the suspicions about Americans Elect as Wall Street vehicle surely will overflow. It is worth noting, though, that the billionaire mayor’s formidable resources would have enabled him to mount a plausible campaign even without Americans Elect.

Americans Elect is planning to finish its preliminary voting before the end of May, resulting in six finalists, and then to conduct an online convention in June to determine the final candidate. At that point, a turbulent and unpredictable political season may become even more so.

Kenneth Silber is senior editor of Research magazine.

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