When Americans Elect was founded back in April of 2010 by a collection of semi-obscure political elites and hedge fund managers, their intention was to channel the disaffection of voters cool to the historic dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties into an exciting third-party option, with an advertised emphasis on defragging the partisan polarity that holds sway in Washington.
That's the "what." As for the "how" -- well, that's always been a bit more confusing. Their major effort began with a website. Launched in July 2011, Americans Elect's site offered voters a choice. Actually, it offered voters hundreds of choices. Users could sign up, become delegates, draft candidates and, by answering and asking questions, cobble together something that felt like an "agenda." Of course, this was always something of an agenda-less agenda -- not so much a codified set of philosophical principles as much as a measure of what "the real issues" were.
By collecting this information, Americans Elect aimed to indict the current political process further by establishing that the major candidates participated willingly in a corrupt media ecosystem -- machine candidates batting around "gotcha" questions, feeding the polarization further by engaging in a blood-feud over the distraction-of-the-week, rather then participating in a substantive debate on policy issues.
The website cost Americans Elect $9 million to implement. It has been a complete bust.
Last week, the Washington Post's Ned Martel reported that Americans Elect had to postpone their first week of online voting. The reason? Extreme lack of interest. While the organization's efforts to obtain ballot access have largely been successful -- last week, they obtained ballot access in their 25th state, South Dakota -- the organization has struggled mightily to get any candidates in position to vie for their ballot line. In order to qualify, prospective candidates have to clear benchmarks of support: Candidates with certain "high credentials" (former House or Senate members, governors, mayors of high-population cities and people who have run government agencies) must garner 1,000 supporters from 10 states, while any candidate who lacks these credentials must garner 5,000 supporters from 10 states.
As of right now, the candidate with the most support is Ron Paul, with 8,250 supporters overall. And Paul isn't interested in pursuing this candidacy. On the list of "declared candidates" (AE makes a distinction between "declared" candidates who are actively pursuing the AE nomination and "draft" candidates, for whom there is support but no declared interest), the most-supported candidate is Buddy Roemer, who has, in total, 3,804 supporters.
As of this writing, the top 10 "declared candidates" on Americans Elect have collectively garnered 9,919 "support clicks."
This week, a draft effort to get David Walker on the ballot and into the 2012 debate was launched. Who is David Walker? Among other things, he's an almost ideal candidate for Americans Elect: He headed the Government Accountability Office from 1998 to 2008 and went on to head the Peter G. Peterson Foundation for two and a half years. He fits Thomas Friedman's definition for what Americans Elect is all about -- launching the candidacy of a "viable centrist" who can be the Great Deficit Cutter and, by extension, the friendly face of entitlement program destruction.
But Americans Elect hasn't been sufficient to the task of putting any pulse in a Walker bid. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of Americans Elect participants couldn't care less about him. As of this writing, he's only garnered 307 "support clicks." That's why this new draft effort is being run outside of Americans Elect, mainly by former leaders of Americans Elect.
The Huffington Post spoke to one former Americans Elect member, Nick Troiano, who is now involved in this draft effort. Troiano says that Walker's current lack of traction at AE was a factor in his decision to launch the outside effort: "Certainly my participation has to do with that. What motivated me to work for the draft effort for Walker is that no one had qualified yet to be Americans Elect's candidate. It represents not just a need, but an opportunity, to qualify someone for this ballot, get them into the debate, and force the other candidates to contend with serious issues."
Troiano, it should be noted, still avidly supports Americans Elect and their larger effort, and keeps his work for Walker neatly compartmentalized from the efforts of his former organization: "Americans Elect has never and can never be in favor of a candidate. The intention there is to mobilize support for a process." He adds, "It's a great vessel. It needs a captain, and I think David Walker would make a great captain. So that's where I'm concentrating."
But this gets at the larger problem with the philosophies that underpin Americans Elect. Voters are more interested in captains and less so in vessels, especially vessels that make a studied practice of appearing to be as empty as possible. It's pretty clear that the people who founded Americans Elect believe, as Friedman does, that there's a certain form of "centrism" that's under-represented in the larger debate. But rather than come out and rally around a set of "centrist" ideas, the organization has devoted itself instead to staging a gigantic thought exercise to prove a thesis, that the more voters you include in some sort of party process, the more everyone clusters around the "centrist" mean.
As mentioned, it's cost Americans Elect $9 million to run this particular thought exercise on their website, and Ron Paul has ended up the most popular person there. Nobody in 2012 needs to spend even $9 proving that Ron Paul is good at winning web polls. But what's most striking about the money spent on this effort is that even a cursory examination of their site suggests that its creators know very little about how the Internet works.
Begin with the fact that when you visit the site right now, even as a visitor, and click on "See The Candidates," it takes you to a page where visitors are encouraged to "Draft Your Own" candidate or even "Declare Yourself." As Martel reported, Americans Elect has already blown past a voting deadline and has extended their first round of voting because the candidates who are already declared and/or drafted haven't garnered sufficient support. Why on earth are they still encouraging people to add more names to the mix? Americans Elect plans to stage a "caucus" in 13 days. The drop-dead date for crossing the qualification threshold is May 15. This effort should not be adding on candidates, it should be consolidating. The 10 most recent candidates added to the roster have collectively garnered 18 support clicks.
One of the recently drafted candidates is New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. I don't think I could write a sentence that more clearly demonstrates the stupidity of allowing this "draft new people" effort to continue any further.
Participating in this online exercise isn't a particularly pleasant experience for users. The site makes a great effort to "match" their delegates to candidates. This is done through mechanisms that closely resemble online dating sites -- the user prioritizes nine generic issue categories and then goes on to answer questions about your political preferences. One can spend hours answering these questions. I answered 43 before I started to have existential worries about my own mortality. This process closely resembles that old "idiot test" that your friends forwarded to you back in 2002, where your idiocy was rated based upon the point at which you realized that the "test" was going to keep asking you questions. The sooner you gave up, the smarter you were.
"The more you answer, the more you're helping shape the Americans Elect process," the site tells you. Let's recall that the organization already has a hoped-for end result in mind, so it's weird for them to pretend that you are "shaping a process."
Americans Elect tells me that my closest match is a woman I've never heard of named Michaelane Risley. She is an "activist" from California. Her highest "priority" is the "economy." On her page, she has apparently provided generic answers to generic questions. Here's the first:
Q. When you think about the US budget deficit, which of the following solutions is closest to your opinion?
A. More tax increases than spending cuts (mix of both solutions)
It's worth pointing out that Risley, like myself, was forced into choosing answers from a list of painfully unspecific choices: "cutting existing programs," "more spending cuts than tax increases," "raising taxes" and "unsure." Because I'm not a complete idiot, I know that the debate on the broader question is more nuanced. Because I have a working knowledge of how the executive branch relates to the legislature, I know that Michealane Risley will need more than the magic word to get her proposed solution passed, even if it turns out her position is more specific. Because I went through the same question-and-answer process, I know that Risley isn't really getting the opportunity to express her policy philosophy in her preferred terms. And because Risley is in favor of "more tax increases," I have a pretty good feeling that she's not the sort of candidate whom the masterminds behind Americans Elect really, deep in their collective heart, want as their standard bearer.
But even if my basic grasp of objective reality didn't make this effort the massive letdown that it is, the next question a participant is likely to ask is, "Now that I know what I want, where do I go with it?" Americans Elect doesn't offer me anything. As Martel notes, the founders of this enterprise were all about "empowering Web-izens" and "using viral marketing savvy" to "advance a third-party 'unity' ticket without the usual cynicism." But there's no evidence on hand of anything resembling "viral marketing savvy," and for an organization that prides itself on generating a community, there are almost no avenues for social interaction.
For example, Americans Elect tells me that 1,361 other people support Risley, my closest match. I have the option of contacting a Draft Committee leader, but why can't I mix it up with other supporters? Where's the Facebook group? Where can I go to plan or learn about a meeting? Where are the tools to build out this community ahead of the scheduled caucus? I don't even get so much as a Twitter handle for Risley that I can follow.
The best tool Americans Elect gives me to "Rally Support for Michealene Risley" is a banner I can embed on my "website or blog," assuming that I have one. And the lack of interactivity apparently flows both ways: Despite the fact that Risley has been my top match for some time, no one has attempted to reach out to me and garner my support for her AE bid. There is either no tool that allows Risley's draft captain to reach out to me, or their effort isn't serious enough to attempt such communication.
Either way, this is failing to spawn a community of support. Most of Americans Elect's social media tools are geared toward generically "following" the larger organization -- they have a Twitter account and a Facebook page -- but now that I'm in and participating, I don't need an enhanced "awareness" of the organization, I need to add to a mobilization effort for a candidate. Americans Elect would rather keep reminding you of how important Americans Elect is, long after you've "bought in" to the process.
Given the fact that this organization would rather get you to buy in to the process at the expense of buying in to a particular candidate, it's hardly surprising that those who want David Walker in the 2012 mix have had to venture outside Americans Elect to get his candidacy across the threshold, despite the fact that many of them were a part of building a mechanism that promises to bypass conventional politicking in the first place.
Real third-party efforts don't have all these problems or complications. Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party aren't spending $9 million to build a complex trial balloon, they're out there competing for votes, and they're already showing up in the polls. And Johnson doesn't need to put himself through a multi-stage process to produce vague sounding policy proposals. Johnson is capable of both stating his philosophies and drawing distinct contrasts with the major party nominees without a titanic amount of effort.
When I asked Troiano about the site's deficiencies, he explained, "Most of [Americans Elect's] shortcomings can be explained with lack of time. The priority for Americans Elect was to get through the core functionality. All of the minimal functionality is there, a lot of the nice-to-haves aren't."
I understand that, but I can't help wondering what the AE-backing Friedman, who believes that the glory of all this technology is largely centered in its potential to bind the entire world into a tight community, would make of a $9 million website with social media wiring from 2006.
"The first time out of the gate, you're going to learn a lot of lessons," Troiano says, "The next time around it's going to work even better."
Perhaps. But color me skeptical on whether "work even better" involves enhancing the community building/social media tools that would bring this online political mechanism more fully into the 21st century. It seems to me that what this effort is largely about is proving some thesis about public support for a lumpen "centrist" agenda, and that the millions of people who've signed up for this were intended to be recorded as data points on a scatter plot, not a community.
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