First Donald Trump switched his registration from Republican to Independent. Then Gary Johnson, excluded from most of the party debates, abandoned the GOP to seek the Libertarian nomination. Meanwhile, Ron Paul's legions of devotees are at the ready to follow him anywhere. And a group called Americans Elect is lurking around with a large pile of cash to get someone on the ballot.
The question isn’t whether a third-party candidate will impact the 2012 elections, but how many of them will.
Trump, Paul, and Johnson all sought, or are seeking, the Republican nomination only to get the cold shoulder from the party regulars. Paul hasn’t really faced the wrath of the establishment, but he probably will soon if and when he becomes the only thing standing between Mitt Romney and his coronation. All of them have a revenge motive to run, similar to the grudge against the Democratic Party that propelled Ralph Nader on his suicide mission to defeat Al Gore in 2000.
Americans Elect is a more curious case. It is the brainchild of moderate liberals in the grip of a fantasy that a third-party candidate, running on a slightly tweaked version of Barack Obama’s agenda, can somehow win. Americans Elect clearly hopes this process will produce an erudite centrist ticket advocating free trade, a balanced deficit-reduction plan, clean energy, and social liberalism. It has raised millions in money, the source of which it won’t disclose, in order to obtain ballot access for a yet-to-be-determined candidate.
What candidate? There’s the rub. Formally, the process is democratic, to be chosen by The People via the Internet. And the voters may have different ideas than nominating Tom Friedman’s fantasy ticket. As Ruth Marcus puts it:
Will Americans Elect become the useful vehicle for a centrist ticket, or is it at risk of being hijacked by, say, the well-organized and Internet-savvy supporters of Ron Paul, who is already the most-tracked candidate on the group’s Web site? Already Donald Trump has left the Republican Party and may be toying with the idea of seeking the Americans Elect ballot line.
This explains why the group has in place a “candidate certification committee” that can overrule the vote. Oh, you say you want Ron Paul and Donald Trump? What you really mean is that you’d like Mike Bloomberg paired with a nice conservative Democratic lobbyist, right?
So the picture is that you could have any of Trump, Paul, or Johnson, running on the Americans Elect line, or possibly in addition to an Americans Elect candidate. All these decisions will be heavily influenced by behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Americans Elect may not have only a struggle between its voters and its elites. Surely the Republican and Democratic Parties will try to get involved. Since third parties tend to hurt major party candidates most ideologically similar to themselves, the GOP will try to push liberal alternatives, like Bloomberg, into the race, while the Democrats will try to get right-wingers like Trump or Paul to run. Obama’s aides are warning loudly against the undemocratic nature of Americans Elect’s leadership. They don’t care about transparency, they care about letting Americans Elect help their candidate rather than hurt him. The outcome of these maneuverings could have a far larger impact than many of the stories the media is obsessively covering.