Political Gridlock Renews Calls For Third Party

Political gridlock. Dysfunctional Congress. Debt-ceiling debacle. Times like this have many Americans wondering why we're stuck with just two political parties. While several political entrepreneurs are trying to gin up a new party, more than a century of history tells us success is not likely.

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Speaking of next year's elections, one factor may be rising voter discontent. A Washington Post/NBC Poll shows 80 percent of those surveyed are dissatisfied or angry with Washington. That's the kind of number that makes you wonder if a new political alternative might emerge. There is, in fact, a movement afoot to give voters greater choice in 2012. But as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, the obstacles remain monumental.

DON GONYEA: The best-known third party candidates of the past century have often been iconic figures - in 1912, the biggest name of the bunch, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1948, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond carried four southern states. And 20 years later, Alabama Governor George Wallace carried five. More recently, there was this man...

Mr. ROSS PEROT (Former Presidential Candidate): All these folks in Washington are basically saying to you and me, can we buy your vote with what used to be your money this year? We're not that dumb.

GONYEA: Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot, who in 1992 got 19 percent of the vote. Then there was Ralph Nader.

Mr. RALPH NADER (Former Presidential Candidate): The crisis in American politics starts with the two-party dictatorship. They don't want to allow any competition.

GONYEA: Nader has run multiple times as an independent and under the Green Party banner. Now, none of these would-be presidents came even close to being elected, and that fact has mattered to many other iconic American figures who were pressed to run on their own but who declined - most recently retired General Colin Powell.

Louis Gould is a retired University of Texas historian.

Mr. LOUIS GOULD (Historian): Well, the American political system is set up to favor the two-party system. And both the Democrats and the Republicans, however much they fight in other ways, have institutionalized it so it's darn hard to get a third party going and to keep it going.

GONYEA: The obstacles include difficulty in getting the required signatures to get on the ballot in all 50 states, navigating the rules and standards that vary from place to place. Non-billionaires have to worry about raising money and creating a nationwide campaign.

Mr. GOULD: I mean the Republicans and the Democrats have, what, 100-plus years and 200 years of history. And so they're sort of, they're wired into the political DNA, whereas you're sort of creating this new creature and trying to say, well, it's going to last, and the odds are that it probably won't.

GONYEA: Still, the idea of a third-party breakthrough never dies. Michael Bloomberg says he won't run, but the billionaire media mogul and mayor of New York still gets asked about 2012 all the time.

Then there's the new approach being tried by an organization called Americans Elect, which wants to hold an online conversation and online convention where any registered voter can help choose a candidate. Elliot Ackerman is a former Marine and Iraq War veteran. He's the group's COO and he lays out the goal.

Mr. ELLIOTT ACKERMAN (Americans Elect): Introduce more competition into our political process, take the political process and blow it wide open.

GONYEA: Ackerman says under Americans Elect rules, the delegates will be able to nominate a presidential candidate from any party, or an independent, but that the nominee will have to choose a running mate from a different party.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Americans, they want more choice in their lives. They look everywhere in their life and they see all sorts of different alternatives, all sorts of innovations, and they look to our political process and it seems like something out of almost 100 years ago.

GONYEA: Americans Elect says it has already secured a place on the ballot in a handful of states and will file petitions in California very soon. Ackerman predicts they'll hit all 50 states all on behalf of a candidate as yet unknown, a candidate who will have to hope the power of the Internet changes the rules in this game, as it has in so many others.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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