On Thursday, the board of Americans Elect folded its presidential nominating process after the set of declared candidates repeatedly failed to muster the support required to receive the group’s backing. Despite spending $35 million on “swank offices”, a fancy website, and expensive ballot access drives, Americans Elect ultimately attracted neither a credible candidate nor widespread support.
If you read the op-ed pages, you might have had different expectations. For years, commentators have hyped the prospect of a serious independent or third party challenge to the presidential nominees of the two major parties, often by invoking the Internet as some sort of magic elixir that will overcome previous obstacles to mounting such a challenge. Here’s notorious third-party hypester Thomas Friedman, for instance, writing in July 2011:
Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.
With its deep pockets and establishment backing, Americans Elect seemed perfectly designed to inspire the hopes of pundits like Friedman. Unsurprisingly, the mustachioed New York Times columnist and other like-minded members of the commentariat rushed to embrace the group. (BuzzFeed’s Rebecca Elliot has compiled some of the worst predictions about the group’s potential.) By contrast, reporting on Americans Elect tended to be less credulous. In a July 2011 Washington Post feature on incipient third-party groups, for instance, Chris Cillizza noted that “there are still major hurdles to turning voter discontent with the two parties into a credible third-party bid.” The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson was similarly careful to note the “daunting” hurdles Americans Elect faced.
What its backers in the press could never explain is how Americans Elect would overcome those hurdles. As any political scientist could tell you, there are deep structural forces that keep the two-party system in place, including the difficulty of securing ballot access; strategic voting (the desire not to waste one’s vote on a third-place candidate); the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College (and the state-by-state House vote that would decide the presidency if no candidate secures a majority); and the major parties’ massive advantages in voter loyalty, infrastructure, and organization.
In addition, the group was clearly intended to serve as a platform for an establishment centrist candidate like Michael Bloomberg even though such candidates lack a highly salient cross-cutting issue that would allow them to draw supporters away from the two major parties. The tepid enthusiasm for such candidates meant that the group was hamstrung from the beginning. (As Politico’s Jonathan Martin suggested on Twitter, an anti-Wall Street border/trade hawk might attract somewhat more interest.)
What’s so frustrating about pundits’ hype of Americans Elect is that its failure was so predictable. Even if commentators weren’t aware of the basic political science principles at stake, they should have considered what happened to the group Unity ‘08, which followed a nearly identical trajectory from pre-election hype to suffocating lack of interest to collapse. Back in December 2006, a co-founder of the group predicted five to 20 million people would participate in their online convention in 2008 to choose the group’s presidential nominee. In the end, though, Unity ‘08 only managed to attract 124,000 members, and the group folded in January 2008. Why should anyone be surprised that Americans Elect followed the same path?