A few hours before the GOP presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I ran into a political tourist roaming the debate site—a fellow by the name of Kahlil Byrd, who, despite calling himself a Republican, is in every other way the walking, talking antithesis of the race-baiting, base-inflaming spectacle that unfolded on the stage that night. First, Byrd is (wait for it) black.
Second, he is too composed and sane to leap to his feet and applaud Newt Gingrich’s mau-mauing of Juan Williams. Third, it’s not just Newt among the Republicans for whom Byrd has no love; he has made it his mission to defeat whomever the GOP picks as its standard-bearer. But Byrd is no closet Democrat, rooting for Barack Obama. Instead, he’s on a crusade to undermine both parties and, in the process, change American politics forever.
Byrd is the CEO of an outfit called Americans Elect, which you may have heard about already—but, if you haven’t, you soon will. Started, supported, and advised by an array of heavy-hitting politicos and moneymen, Americans Elect aims to launch a credible independent presidential candidacy in 2012. To that end, the group has spent millions to gain ballot access in all 50 states and build the technology to host an online nominating convention open to anyone with a valid I.D. and an Internet connection. In June, after successive rounds of voting, the process will render a unity ticket, its top and bottom slots filled by candidates of different political affiliations, intended to smash the reigning partisan duopoly and seize the vital center.
The prospect of such a ticket seemed auspicious late last year, when Obama’s approval rating was in the tank and the Republicans were cycling through a series of flash-in-the pan front-runners who seemed better suited to The Gong Show than the Oval Office. But with Obama now on the political mend and Republicans (regardless of the result in the South Carolina primary, on the eve of which this is being written) likely to nominate Mitt Romney, the received wisdom in the political world is that the opening for an independent candidate has narrowed, perhaps to the vanishing point.
But this wisdom, I suspect, will prove as fleeting as Rick Santorum’s moment in the sun. The electoral dynamics on which Americans Elect is seizing are tectonic and have been gathering force for many years, and if the group’s online convention produces a compelling ticket—a big if, to be sure—it could produce the first viable independent presidential bid since Ross Perot’s.
The notion that such a scenario might be forestalled by an Obama-Romney general election strikes Byrd as absurd. “It’s been agonizing to watch Republicans try to fall in love with Romney and Dems try to fall back in love with the president,” he says. “They’re not ready to settle on these candidates, and they are ready to bring someone else to the table.”
Byrd isn’t just spinning here—there is data aplenty to back up his contention. The level of dissatisfaction with the nation’s governance is at a historic high: 81 percent, according to Gallup, compared with just 39 in 1992, when Perot snagged 19 percent of the vote. Both political parties have long been bleeding members; today, as much as 46 percent of the electorate self-identifies as independent. And according to a new survey conducted by Doug Schoen, former pollster to Bill Clinton and now an adviser to Americans Elect, 26 percent of voters say they would be certain or very likely to cast their ballot for an independent presidential candidate, with another 38 percent saying that they would possibly do so.
With its online convention and ballot-access efforts—which have succeeded in 30 states so far and are on track to nail the other twenty plus the District of Columbia in the coming months—Americans Elect is building a platform for a candidate to exploit those dissatisfactions and impulses. Given the huge challenges of getting on the ballot across the country, which have confounded countless potential and actual independent candidates (including John Anderson in 1980) in the past, the group’s role is especially important there.
Constructing that platform is all that Americans Elect will do, however—which is why one of the criticisms of the group, that it doesn’t disclose its donors, strikes me as somewhat beside the point. Were the group planning to fund its eventual unity ticket in the general election, the concern would be much greater. But Byrd assures me that the $24 million it has raised so far is being used exclusively for ballot access and the tech infrastructure necessary to run its nominating process on the web.
The more pertinent criticism of Americans Elect is directed at its ideological orientation. From the arch-Establishmentarians who are behind the group—such as its financier chairman Peter Ackerman and board members such as former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman—to its requirement of a “balanced” ticket, Americans Elect is adamantly centrist. According to Schoen, there is a reason for this: It is what the public wants. According to his new survey, when voters are presented with the choice of a generic Democrat, a generic Republican, and a generic unity ticket, the first two options garner 26 percent support and the last 24 percent: i.e., a statistical tie. “With a centrist agenda,” Schoen says, “Americans Elect can win.”
The flaw in this argument, as Schoen allows, is that the general election won’t be waged with generic candidates, but with actual, you know, human beings. And so the ultimate viability of the Americans Elect ticket will depend on the quality of the ticket it puts together. Over the past months, Byrd and his colleagues have been meeting quietly with prospective candidates. The names that have been floated are a screamingly predictable bunch of moderates from both parties: Lamar Alexander, Chuck Hagel, and Jon Huntsman from the Republican column; Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Bob Kerrey. Add to that Mike Bloomberg, plus a handful of business leaders such as Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and you get a sense, however imperfect, of where Americans Elect may be headed.
No wonder, then, that Obama’s reelection team has lately taken some hard shots at Americans Elect, with David Axelrod decrying it as an example of “Über-democracy meets backroom bosses.” Though Schoen contends that his polling suggests that a unity ticket would draw equally from the vote totals of both sides, were most of the names above on the ticket—including the nominal Republicans, I would contend—the impact would likely fall more heavily on the incumbent.
But there exists a wholly different possibility: that rather than ending up with a mushy moderate at the top of its unity ticket, Americans Elect could find itself facing the prospect of backing Ron Paul. The libertarian Texas congressman has, please note, pointedly refused to rule out the notion of waging an independent bid. Although Paul has said he will not seek the Americans Elect nomination, there is nothing—beyond the requirement that he choose a non-Republican running mate—that would prohibit him from doing so. Indeed, on the group’s website, his name is consistently among the most heavily tracked by users.
For Americans Elect, a Paul candidacy would be a kind of nightmare scenario, and having spent some time following Paul during this primary season, I sympathize. If you close your eyes while listening to him—as he rattles on about the glories of Austrian economics, the danger of paper money, and the coming accrual of “dictatorial-type powers” by the federal government—the image that immediately fills your mind is that of an addled, geriatric berserker with bushels of hair growing out of his ears, sitting on a park bench, talking to the trees and the phantoms in his head, feeding stale bread to the squirrels.
Out of deference to his son, Rand, and the freshman senator’s own potential presidential aspirations, Ron Paul may decide to spare Americans Elect from having to endorse his brand of lunacy. But in his not-inconsiderable electoral appeal, there is still an important lesson for the group—and for the pool of wannabe independent candidates who might want to make use of the Americans Elect platform. That lesson, simply put, is that there is a great deal of anti-Establishment sentiment alive in the land at this moment. Some of it is conservative, some of it is liberal. (His calls for a halt to endless wars and legalizing drugs are a big part of why so many non-Republican college kids are Paulistas.) But mostly it is ardently populist and viscerally against the status quo in all its various guises.
A contest between two incarnations of the status quo is, of course, a decent definition of what an Obama-Romney general election will be: two smart, cool, and diffident candidates, each without a populist bone in his body—though both will try like crazy to pretend that’s not the case—offering nothing that will look to millions of voters like fundamental change. An independent candidate who can offer a real alternative to them, stylistically and temperamentally as well as substantively, could be a genuine game-changer in 2012. If Kahlil Byrd and his pals have any sense, they should lose the phone numbers of Joe Lieberman and his ilk, and start looking for someone like that.