By now, you’ve probably heard of Americans Elect, the political-reform group funded by a collection of Wall Street executives (some of whom remain anonymous) who hope to field a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2012.

Americans Elect has been amply, but poorly, covered. The part of its strategy that generates the most attention is also the part that’s most wrongheaded: an effort to nominate a bipartisan superticket to contest for the presidency in 2012.

This sort of thing is a perennial fantasy. At its best, it’s mostly harmless. The candidates run weak campaigns and fade away. At its worst, it can split the vote for reasonable candidates and let extreme politicians slip into office. Either way, it perpetuates a harmful misunderstanding about what’s wrong with our political system, and what it will take to fix it.

It’s seductive to believe that all Washington needs to thrive is an independent-minded presidential candidate who will expose the folly of partisanship and remind Americans of our shared values and the common good. But it’s not true. Just ask Barack Obama, who ran on hope, change and post-partisanship. Ask George W. Bush, who promised to be “a uniter, not a divider.” It would be nice if our problems were so superficial that we could solve them with an inspiring campaign and a new occupant in the Oval Office. But governing isn’t the last act of an Aaron Sorkin drama.

Change the System

The political system is, above all, a system. Into this machine we place leaders defined by different partisan affiliations, coalitions, ideas and personalities. Yet it continues to work much the same from year to year, presidency to presidency. If you want change — and polling suggests many Americans do — you can’t just move a new person into office. You need to change the system.

Which brings us to the interesting part of what Americans Elect is doing.

Although Americans Elect is often marketed as a third party, its founders point out that it’s no such thing. “It’s not about dropping your ideological framework,” says Elliot Ackerman, the chief operating officer of Americans Elect and son of Peter Ackerman, the group’s main funder. “That’s unnecessary. What is truly the innovation here is the second nominating process.”

Here’s what he means: The group’s real accomplishment is having secured ballot lines in all 50 states. That’s not easily done. Different states have different rules for getting on the ballot, and the rules can be both complicated and costly to follow. (Consider Virginia, where Mitt Romney and Ron Paul were the only two Republican presidential candidates to make their party’s primary ballot.) Kahlil Byrd, the chief executive officer of Americans Elect, estimates that the organization has spent about $15 million clearing ballot hurdles in the states.

Most states let a party remain on the ballot once its candidate has obtained a threshold percentage of the vote. Americans Elect is hoping that its bipartisan ticket will reap a sufficient number of votes in 2012 to ensure ballot access in 2014 and beyond. If not, Americans Elect will have to spend millions more. Either way, it plans to be on the ballot in every state, at every level. “What’s really important is making sure that this becomes a perpetual effort, that in 2014 and 2016, you see governors and senators and congressmen running on it,” Byrd says. That’s the point at which Americans Elect moves beyond fantasy tickets and takes aim at the system.

Primary Leverage

“The problem we have is members of a political party can’t defect,” Elliot Ackerman says. “The real reason defections are so difficult is people go home and they’re faced by a primary challenger. There’s a huge amount of leverage right now on people who fear being primaried.”

To put that slightly differently, primaries are one of the tools used to enforce polarization. You might be a moderate Republican from Delaware, or a moderate Democrat from Colorado, and inclined to cross the aisle fairly frequently. But before you can be judged by the full electorate in Delaware or Colorado, you must win your party’s primary. And the voters in that primary are, on the whole, much less moderate than the voters in a general election.

If primaries were easy, candidates could just worry about the general. But particularly in recent years, and particularly in the Republican Party, primaries have become a serious threat to incumbents. Just ask former Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, or former Representative Mike Castle of Delaware, both of whom lost Republican primaries in 2010 to Tea Party opponents who condemned political moderation. Or ask Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who lost her party’s primary that same year to a Tea Party challenger before running as an independent. With no ballot line to support her candidacy, Murkowski pulled off a rare feat — winning as a write-in candidate.

“Running as an independent candidate is not something that’s particularly easy to do,” Ackerman says. “It’s like running with a parachute.”

Americans Elect plans to throw the independent-minded a ballot line. Candidates can run on the Americans Elect line, but still caucus with the Democrats, the Republicans or no party at all. In effect, the goal isn’t to create a new party, but to provide a new path for moderate members of the two reigning parties.

“People look at the Democratic and Republican primary process at every level and they simply don’t want to go through what is needed to compete,” Byrd says. “Americans Elect is dealing with that pain point.”

Will many politicians — incumbents or newcomers — choose this path? Probably not, and definitely not at first. It increases the likelihood of a three-way race in which Americans Elect candidates would see their support siphoned by whoever gets the nomination of their party, making victory on the Americans Elect line unlikely. It also means that Americans Elect candidates would be cut off from traditional networks for fundraising, volunteer support and campaign expertise, which political parties provide.

But if a high-profile incumbent, under threat of a primary challenge from the far right or left, takes the Americans Elect route, the practice could spread. (Are you listening, Senator Dick Lugar?) In that case, Americans Elect could help undermine one of the major methods by which parties enforce ideological discipline. It might give legislators like Bennett, Castle and Murkowski a license to cross the aisle — and survive. Then, if nothing else, we’d see more clearly how much polarization is baked into the system, and how much is a product of the particular people inside it.

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