Commentary: Plenty of skepticism about Americans Elect

Americans Elect is nothing if not audacious.

A startup political organization seeded with $20 million from anonymous donors, Americans Elect promises to offer voters a centrist candidate who will challenge Barack Obama and whomever the Republicans nominate for leadership of the Free World in 2012.

Be skeptical, very, very skeptical. Odds are that Americans Elect will be a footnote in the coming presidential campaign. But before shrugging it off, take a look at some of the political brains working on the effort.

There's pollster Doug Schoen, who helped elect President Bill Clinton and is an expert on independent voters. There's Mark McKinnon, a Texan who helped elect and re-elect President George W. Bush.

McKinnon worked for Sen. John McCain in 2008 until Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, at which point he stepped off the Straight Talk Express and declared that Obama's election would send a "great message to the country and the world." Disappointed by a president he thought would be The One, McKinnon is volunteering for Americans Elect because the system is "utterly broken and incapable of reforming itself."

And there is Darry Sragow, who recently signed on as political director. I wrote about Americans Elect a few months ago and would not revisit it so soon, except that Sragow, at 65 and having run campaigns for four decades, is worth listening to.

"The political system is out of date and it is broken," said Sragow, whose role will be to recruit potential presidential candidates. "It is delivering nothing that voters expect."

Unlike most of the rest of us, Sragow has seen up close the warts of the denizens of the political system. He ran the late Sen. Alan Cranston's re-election campaign in 1986 and worked as the Assembly Democrats' main consultant in the 1990s and early last decade. He has had his losses, having worked for the failed gubernatorial campaigns of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and rich guy Al Checchi.

He quit campaign work a few years ago, becoming managing partner of the Los Angeles office of the international law firm SNR Denton. But junkies never truly change their ways, and he remained involved, studying focus groups and polling, and advising candidates, Jerry Brown among them.

For years, Sragow has worried about societal upheaval, that jobs once held by people with few skills have become automated, that the divide between rich and poor is widening, and that political leaders fail to address basic issues.

"People we elect get stuck fighting in the sandbox over the debt ceiling, whatever that is," he said. "Voters' needs are not being met. But I remain optimistic about the vibrancy of this country. It is time to bring something new to market."

Americans Elect could be just another gimmick. It certainly has elements of gimmickry. But it also could have an impact, especially given the level of discontent.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll shows that even in the Democratic stronghold of California, barely half the voters approve of Obama's performance, and almost two-thirds of the electorate disapprove of the Republican Party.

"President Obama promised hope and change. He has delivered neither," Sragow said. "But the fact is that Americans still want hope and change."

Americans Elect offers itself not as a third party but rather as a You-Generation political vehicle. Billionaire investor Peter Ackerman gave $2.5 million to seed the group, and signed a 47-page pitch last year soliciting other donors and describing the concept. It's not simple, which is one of its flaws. Tentative rules read a little like those for a rather complicated board game.

The key, the pitch says, will be to gain ballot access in all 50 states, no small feat. In California, the group gathered more than a million signatures and will learn in the next few weeks whether it has gained a spot on California's ballot. Other states have different rules. The group may need to sue to gain access in some states.

We don't yet know who that candidate is, except that organizers expect him or her to be a centrist. The candidate to be named later would be nominated in voting conducted on its website starting next May. Any registered voter can shape a platform or campaign to draft their ideal candidate.

Americans Elect's assumptions, described in the booklet, certainly are hopeful. Candidates will emerge once it is understood that 50-state ballot access is certain. A ticket representing the center-right and center-left can win. Delegates, on their own initiative, will fund the ticket.

It sounds more hopeful than realistic. But lots of ideas are weird. Imagine thinking that what people truly need is to post personal photos on a public website and invite "friends" to comment, or that revolutionaries could use 140-character messages to plot to overthrow dictators.

"It's either going to be iTunes or Friendster. ... They're either going to change the world, or not," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP political consultant who teaches government at USC.

Americans Elect's pitch invited donors to give $500,000 and join what it called the John Hancock Society, named for the first brave man who signed the Declaration of Independence. The booklet also said donors would be publicly disclosed. That hasn't happened. Americans Elect attorney Daniel Winslow of Boston said some donors fear retribution if they become known.

That's, of course, a canard. John Hancock risked being hanged. People able to shell out $500,000 on an upstart have nothing of significance to fear.

Winslow, long a supporter of Mitt Romney, says Americans Elect is not a project of any candidate. Sragow says candidates could include politicians, military officers, business or labor leaders. It could be a Republican, including one who fails to win the GOP nomination, or a Democrat. Al Gore? Michael Bloomberg? Without knowing the donors, it's impossible to know the organization's motives.

Americans Elect most likely will be little more than a blip in 2012. History is littered with failed third-party candidates. At most, its candidate might be a spoiler. Then again, smart guys are involved. Maybe, just maybe, 2012 could be different.