Group Backing Third-Party Candidates Struggles

The non-partisan group Americans Elect had hoped to start online voting already to pick a presidential candidate outside the two major parties. Instead, the group has been unable to get a single candidate to get over its 10,000 supporter threshold. Andrea Seabrook talks to Melissa Block about the group.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The group called Americans Elect billed itself as the best chance for a third-party presidential candidate in this year's election. Well, that chance now seems to have fizzled. The group's CEO announced at midnight that Americans Elect is putting its online primary process on hold.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook has been following this story. She joins me now. And, Andrea, how was Americans Elect trying to go about fielding a third-party candidate?

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Well, the group created a structure for nominating a third-party candidate online. So delegates would go and register on the website and then sort of like candidates, like on Facebook. The group also managed to get its own candidate on the ballot in 50 states, or it looks as if it was on its way to 50 states, and it was successful in that.

Though what I mean by that is its would-be candidate. It didn't actually have a name, so it never got to that.

BLOCK: So they have a line on the ballot but nobody to put on that line?

SEABROOK: Exactly.

BLOCK: I spoke on the program a couple of months ago with Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor and congressman who was one of Americans Elect top prospects. Who were some of the other names that were in contention? And why didn't they get support?

Well, of those who were actually running for the nomination, Buddy Roemer got the most votes. But there was a guy on their website who got more votes than Buddy Roemer - the former Louisiana governor - Ron Paul, who we just heard is not running anymore or at least is not going to campaign for the Republican nomination. He's also - Ron Paul said he would not accept the Americans Elect nomination.

SEABROOK: You know, he didn't want to do it. The group was having trouble drafting top-tier candidates, its organizers say, because of what those candidates cited as political risks. They say--you know, the Americans Elect people say the two-party system is so entrenched that it was hard to get top-tier candidates to run outside of it because they would see it as sort of political suicide.

Once you leave the party you've been working in for so long, you can never go back. That's at least why Americans Elect said they couldn't get somebody.

BLOCK: So that's their explanation. There were, though, some problems with the group's financial model, and they took some criticism for that.

SEABROOK: Yes, there were, Melissa. For example, this was a group that was running from the beginning on a platform of, you know, campaign reform, transparency, bipartisanship. At the same time, it was keeping all of its big multimillion-dollar donors secret and using, you know, an IRS tax structure to be able to keep from revealing the names of its donors.

And so there were a lot of questions about where the money for this group is coming from, what its real intentions were. It never quite explained itself there. Also, it announced fairly recently that the group was paying back millionaires who had given it seed money. The idea being to sort of democratize the group, you know, no donor would have given more than $10,000. But it had the effect of rendering any new donations, like smaller donations, useless.

They didn't actually add to the pot of money. They were just going to pay back millionaires. And so it sort of left all of these strange sort of conundra for anyone who might get involved.

BLOCK: You've been talking, Andrea, with a lot of people involved in the group and people who've been watching the group. What do they say to you about why Americans Elect didn't catch on?

SEABROOK: Well, there weren't enough people involved in the website to start out with. The group had a structure that said that any candidate that would be considered in the primary had to have at least a thousand likes in each state or of 10 states - and it's all very complicated. The problem was there was no personality to drive the thing. There was no candidate, no battle of ideas.

The group was trying to sell a process. And, you know, process doesn't sell. They never quite articulated what the group stood for beyond, you know, bipartisanship and solving problems and civility. And those are things that pretty much all candidates stand for right now.

I should say, though, that they - the group says that they will announce Thursday whether they'll shut down their process completely or figure out some new way to go forward. But it's hard to see how they go forward when their process seems to have just fizzled.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. Andrea, thank you so much.

SEABROOK: My pleasure.

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