As the Americans Elect window inches shut, its founder still sees a ‘perfect storm’

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Mitt Romney campaigns. (Reid Pillifant)
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In just over 60 days, the online constituents of Americans Elect will cast their first votes for a third-party challenger for president. And while the group has yet to enlist any of the high-profile candidates who have been rumored at various points to be interested, its executive director still sees a "perfect storm."

"There has become an expectation amongst communities of people, some of them are online, some of them are organizers, that they should have the direct ability to influence what a candidate says and does," Kahlil Byrd, the executive director of Americans Elect, said on Friday at a panel discussion at New York University. "The counter to that is actually what we experience."

Byrd pointed to two aspects of the two-party system that he said showed the need for an independent candidacy.

"The first is the super PAC, which seems like such an enormous thing," he said. "But it's 15 or 20 guys—and women—who are giving a lot of money and tilting campaigns one way or the other. So as people's expectations are increasing, and their hope about what's going to be possible when they elect President Obama or someone else, rises, they're being disappointed."

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The second thing he pointed to was the Maine caucus system, in which fewer than 6,000 people participated, and some votes were not initially counted because the reports from the precinct went into the spam folder of the central tabulator.

"All of these powerful things are what people are expecting ... They get them in every other aspect of their lives," Byrd said. "Politics seems to be going further and further back, as people's expectations and the challenges seem to be rising. And that seems to me a perfect storm."

Conditions would seem to have been better for Americans Elect a few months ago, though. Beloved of columnists like the Times' Tom Friedman, who constantly laments the highly partisan state of American politics, and pollster-pundits like Doug Schoen, who would probably not be averse to an extravagently self-financed presidential run by his client Michael Bloomberg, Americans Elect was spending tens of millions of dollars to secure a place on the state ballots for its eventual champion.

The narrative about the Republican primary was dominated by a succession of not-Romney candidates who all stood an unusually high chance of alienating a general electorate if nominated, and the generally economic news was awful and seemed to be getting worse, dragging down President Obama's re-election prospects. 

It was an ideal marketing opportunity for anyone promising an alternative, even in the absence of an actual candidate. 

But now, the Republicans are finally coalescing around Mitt Romney, the most pragmatic of their primary choices in general-election terms, and both the economy and Obama's approval ratings are ticking up. Meanwhile, Americans Elect still lacks its Bloomberg.

"We can't change political physics," Byrd said during the panel discussion. "Political physics are that you have to have a good candidate, good organization, you have to some money—some, not as much as they say, but some—and you have to have a good message. So campaigns, it's incumbent on them to do that."

Bloomberg has expressed admiration for the group's organizer, Peter Ackerman, but has dismissed his own interest in running after allowing his aides to flirt with the idea in the press. Last week, a rumor that retiring Maine senator Olympia Snowe, a proud centrist, would run on the ticket was squelched before it could even take off.

Since December, Byrd said the group had spoken to more than 70 candidates, with varying degrees of seriousness.

"Those candidates now, when we brief a lot of potential people, are making their evaluations based on the same kind of politial calculations that anyone would," he said. "How far will I get? Can I do it? Am I ready for the rigors of a presidential campaign?"

Byrd said the Republican nomination was helping provide the political moment for a third-party challenger.

"If you look at the polling in the swing states, after the carpet-bombing of negative ads from super PACs,the number of people sitting sort of on the left side of the Republican Party, and the right side of the Democratic Party, and independents, yearning for a new candidate, with new ideas, is growing," he said.

"What that means is our nominee, running a good campaign, creating a unity ticket, has a really good shot of winning. But they have to run a real good campaign. It's not ours to run the campaign. It's ours to build the platform through which they can run."

Byrd was optimistic that some plausible candidates would fill the void.

"I think you'll see more," he said. "I think you'll see a great competition."