You can't win a horse race without a horse. That's something people planning a third-party campaign in 2012 need to keep in mind.
Look at what's happening to the Tea Party movement. It doesn't have a horse. Tea Party conservatives have been trying out a different horse every few weeks -- first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, now Newt Gingrich. Each of them has stumbled.
Is there a market for a third-party candidate in 2012? Absolutely. Self-described Independent voters are a growing category, more numerous than either Democrats or Republicans, according to Gallup. Most voters say the country needs a third political party.
A third-party needs money and organization. Enter Americans Elect, which has raised more than $20 million and has 143 employees. The goal of Americans Elect is to get on all 50 state ballots. So far, they've qualified for nine ballots, including Florida, Michigan and Ohio, and have submitted enough signatures to qualify in California.
Go on the Americans Elect website and their slogan comes up: "Pick a President, not a party." O.K., but who? They say the candidate will come later. Next June, to be precise, when Americans Elect will hold the first-ever Internet primary open to all registered voters.
That's putting the cart before the horse. What defines a third-party is the candidate. He or she draws the voters. You need a Theodore Roosevelt or a George Wallace or a John Anderson or a Ralph Nader or a Ross Perot.
A third-party also needs a cause. Does Americans Elect have a cause? Yes. They insist that their nominee embrace "centrism." That's not a bad cause. Millions of voters are fed up with the bitter division in American politics. Especially after witnessing the disgraceful spectacle of Democrats and Republicans trying to hammer out a deficit deal this year.
The last four presidents all promised to heal the country's division. George H.W. Bush promised a "kinder, gentler America." Bill Clinton was a New Democrat who embraced a "third way." George W. Bush said he would be "a uniter, not a divider." Barack Obama said, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America."
They all failed.
But where is the candidate who can turn centrism into a burning national cause? It could have been Ross Perot -- in 1992. Or Colin Powell -- in 1996. Or John McCain -- in 2000. Michael Bloomberg? He has the least populist temperament of any major politician in the country.
Most of the money for Americans Elect is believed to be coming from wealthy Wall Street hedge fund managers who want to get rid of President Obama but can't abide Tea Party Republicans. (The organization keeps its donors secret.) Those donors may find themselves pleasantly surprised if the Republicans repudiate the Tea Party and nominate Mitt Romney. Romney's one of them.
The danger is that some Tea Party activists will refuse to support Romney. They may try to hijack Americans Elect and use it to nominate their own candidate. After all, Americans Elect will have broken through the major hurdle for a third-party -- ballot access. Americans Elect does have a failsafe mechanism: an unelected committee with the power to veto any candidate they do not consider a true centrist. But that would make the whole process look painfully undemocratic and invite legal action.
Could a centrist win? A Romney nomination would negate the image of a Tea Party takeover of the GOP. On the Democratic side, a lot of conservatives consider Barack Obama a radical leftist. But for most voters, the principal complaint about Obama isn't that he's too extreme. It's that his policies haven't worked.
The late historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, "Third parties are like bees. They sting and then they die." An independent Tea Party candidate would split the Republican vote and help re-elect President Obama. A centrist third-party candidate would probably take votes from Obama and help elect the Republican. In either case, the sting would be pretty nasty.
Suppose the Americans Elect candidate does win. Could he govern?
The idea is that the presidential candidate will be either a centrist Republican or a centrist Democrat. He will then name a running mate from the other party. Instant coalition government? Not likely.
If the Americans Elect candidate wins a three-way race, it will probably be with less than a majority. He will start out without the support of most voters. Moreover, Americans Elect has no plan to run candidates for Congress. So who will be there to support the new president?
If the Americans Elect winner is a Democrat, he will have won by defeating President Obama. If he's a Republican, he will have defeated the official Republican candidate. Congressional Democrats and Republicans may not have much interest in seeing the new president succeed. More likely, they will want to bring him down. And gridlock will get worse.