By Doyle McManus
American voters have fired two modern presidents after just one term, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both suffered because the economy was in poor shape, and both faced disaffection within their own parties. But there was another thing those candidates had in common: They both faced relatively strong third-party candidates in the November election.
John B. Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 both ran as independent centrists, and while they weren’t the only reason the incumbents lost (Ronald Reagan won a majority of the popular vote in 1980), they were certainly a factor.
Until now, handicapping for next year’s presidential election has focused on how President Obama might fare in a two-candidate race. Could Obama beat Mitt Romney? Rick Perry? Herman Cain? (In all three cases, the answer is probably yes.)
But there’s likely to also be a wild card in this election. Americans Elect, a well-funded “virtual third party,” plans to put a centrist presidential candidate on the ballot in all 50 states.
Americans Elect is a collection of Republicans, Democrats and independents who say they’re fed up with the polarization that has poisoned American politics. Some of its backers have previously contributed to Obama, Romney or other candidates. Several are fans of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has flirted with the idea of running as a third-party centrist. The group’s central figure is Peter Ackerman, a wealthy investor and former banker.
The group plans to hold a national primary election on the Internet – a mass-participation exercise that anyone can join.
Who will its candidate be? Bloomberg is frequently mentioned, even though he says he doesn’t plan to run. So is John Huntsman, even though he says he’s only interested in the Republican nomination.
Americans Elect says it plans to choose a presidential nominee (and a vice presidential candidate, who by the group’s rules can’t come from the same party) by June.
What happens then depends mostly on the shape of the contest between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
“I’m in this because I think the system is broken, and this is a way to begin fixing it,” said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles lawyer and veteran of California Democratic politics who is the group’s national political director.
One potential pitfall for this well-intended effort is the opportunity for mischief. Americans Elect, because of recent court rulings, doesn’t have to report who its donors are.
Another is that the group is aiming at the wrong target.
Most of the polarization we’re seeing comes from Congress, where districts have been drawn to protect incumbents.
That start is certain to be an interesting experiment no matter what happens. But its real potential will come in 2014 and beyond – if it can stay on the ballot and break the two parties’ oligopoly in congressional elections, where the real problem lies.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.