This Is Why You Can't Have Nice Things

The class of commentators who celebrate politicians outside the two-party system might finally realize their dreams of a third-party candidacy in 2012. These agitators of a middle path—typically white, upper-middle-class elites terrified of the nation's debt but ill at ease with social conservatism—have tried their hand in past years at disrupting the normal political process. In 2008, a group called Unity '08 planned to run a bipartisan presidential ticket but fell apart before the election.

This "disempowered center" is back and appears primed for some serious troublemaking in 2012. Americans Elect has qualified for the ballot in 16 states and plans to reach all 50 before November. Founded by *investment banker Peter Ackerman, the group has raised at least $22 million to bankroll this third-party run. Their candidate will be selected through online balloting rather than the normal caucus/primary slog, and the only requirement is that the ticket must be split between a Republican and a Democrat.

The group launched its first round of online nominations last week, and The Atlantic's Molly Ball noticed a surprising outcome. The most popular politician for this new path of politics—developed on Wall Street by moderate liberals concerned with income inequality, education funding, and the environment—is none other than libertarian king Dr. Ron Paul.

As of this writing, Paul leads the Americans Elect poll with 1,386 votes, followed by Jon Huntsman at 758. Perhaps most surprising is the fourth highest vote getter, incumbent President Obama himself. Maybe the Americans Elect base isn't so dissatisfied by the offerings in the two-party presidential system after all.

The numbers reveal the absurdity of relying upon an online poll to select a political candidate. When the websites hold online polls for the presidential race, Ron Paul's supporters spam the system and push their candidate to the top. The Texas congressman has an ardent and vocal base of supporters who realize that the most effective means to promote an agenda unpopular among most Republican voters is to out-organize everyone else and capitalize on every low-stakes competition. It's the same reasoning behind Paul's focus on caucus states, where the burdensome voting procedures reduced turnout of less passionate voters and resulted in a strong second-place finish for Paul ahead of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in Minnesota.

Americans Elect is unlikely to play any significant role in this fall's election for the same reason numerous other third parties have failed in the past: The institutions of presidential elections impede anyone outside the traditional system. A toss-up election between two distinct ideological visions—as is the case for the 2012 election—is a less-than-optimal time for outside parties to convince voters to risk their votes on an unproven quantity. The imbalanced method of selecting their candidate certainly won't make that mission any easier.

*An earlier version of this post erroneously identified Peter Ackerman as a hedge fund manager; he is in fact an investment banker.

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