16 November 2011

'Fantasy baseball for politics': the moderating potential of Americans Elect

The November 21 Newsweek has a four-page piece by Andrew Romano on the Americans Elect movement and the purported moderate agenda of its "socially liberal, fiscally conservative ... leaders and donors." While CEO Elliot Ackerman touts AE as an alternative to Bipolarchy, Romano raises fair questions about its potential to recruit candidates substantially different from those likely to be offered by the Democrats and Republicans. Noting that "AE isn't a third party so much as a 'second way' to nominate a president,' Romano calls on Bipolarchy booster Sean Wilentz for this note of skepticism: "A nonparty party isn't how you gain power....You have to stand for something very clearly -- not 'we don't like parties' in the abstract." While Ackerman clearly believes that AE will have a moderating effect not only on the 2012 contest but on party politics thereafter, the only structural assurance of moderation the AE nominating procedure provides is the requirement that the AE presidential nominee choose a running mate from a party other than his or her own. That a la carte rule leads another skeptic to dismiss Americans Elect as "fantasy baseball for politics, while Romano himself questions "AE's animating idea -- that web-savvy voters are searching for a candidate who is more moderate than Mitt Romney or President Obama." His own browsing experience leads Romano to the opposite conclusion, that more extremism is desired.

Nevertheless, Romano envisions a best-case long-term scenario for AE's positive impact on American politics -- provided that the desired nomination of a moderate actually takes place. In Romano's scenario, AE will have the best results if it actually manages to "spoil" the 2012 election.

By playing the spoiler, Americans Elect could force the parties to take its direct-democracy methods seriously—and perhaps tinker with their polarizing primary systems in the process. In fact, Ackerman believes that even a single-digit share of the vote could have a long-term impact. That’s because ballot access now begets ballot access later: clear the 50-state hurdle this cycle, plus 2 to 5 percent of the presidential vote, and you’ll be eligible to appear on most ballots in 2014 and 2016. In that scenario, if an extremist defeats a moderate in the primary—think Christine O’Donnell vs. Mike Castle in the 2010 Delaware Senate race—the moderate could simply run for the Americans Elect nomination and go on to clobber his wingnut rival in the general. “What Americans Elects turns into is a trust that removes the verb ‘primaried’ from our political lexicon,” Ackerman says. “And that changes the incentive structure. Folks will no longer be rewarded for political intransigence.”

But wouldn't it only change the incentive structure for the losing party? Unless AE itself starts to win elections, one party or another will benefit from its "spoilage" without having moderated its intransigent ideology. For AE to have the effect Romano describes, it would need to have an approximately equal potential to throw an election to either party, so long as it can't win on its own. If one of the two major parties ends up benefiting disproportionately, it'll have no incentive to change its primary practices. Of course, if AE itself emerges as a winning moderate party, the two established parties are likely to become more ideological and more intransigent as moderate voters abandon them for AE. But whether AE can be the moderate instrument its backers envision remains uncertain. What if a Republican wins the AE nomination and selects a Constitution Party running mate? Since the AE presidential nominee is scheduled to be named on June 26, well before the major party conventions, it's possible that ideological AE delegates could choose the winner of the GOP primaries, who should be known by then, and that the Republican Party could then agree to make the AE running mate their own. Likewise, nothing would stop dedicated Democrats from nominating the President for the AE line, recruiting a very moderate Republican (or, to go in the other direction, a Green) to run with him in place of Vice President Biden, and tapping that same turncoat at the Democratic national convention. If these scenarios seem unlikely, it's more likely, I suspect, that all six of the finalists for the AE nomination would refuse the honor. How far down the list will delegates have to go before someone accepts? While I like the idea of AE's "second way," it's unlikely to result in a moderate candidate unless AE itself finds a way to welcome moderate voters while filtering out ideologues. But there's no way to do that except to state your principles ahead of time on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. In that sense, Sean Wilentz is right: Americans Elect can't succeed by pretending to be an empty vessel for the people's use if its founders see it as a means to a specific moderate end. There may be no such thing as a truly neutral instrument for nominating political candidates. But it can't hurt to have a "second way," not to mention a third or fourth -- and that'd just be for starters.

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