May 15, 2012; Source: Washington Post

With the slogan, “Pick a president, not a party,” the nonprofit group Americans Elect sought to bring about “the first nonpartisan presidential nomination,” according to its website. The idea was for voters to match their positions on issues of the most importance to them with potential candidates leading up to an online convention in June in which users would directly select a presidential nominee that would, the group hoped, qualify to appear on the ballot under a new Americans Elect ticket in all U.S. states (Americans Elect has already secured ballot space in 29 states). It was an intriguing idea for making presidential politics less about party and more about ideas, but it didn’t really work.

No candidate was able to secure enough support from the Americans Elect base of voters to become a nominee. Of declared candidates for the Americans Elect nomination, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer was the leader, though Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had generated the most support. Established leaders needed initial votes of support from a minimum of 1,000 people in at least 10 states, but Kahlil Byrd, chief executive officer of Americans Elect, said, “…no candidate has reached the national support threshold required” to partake in the online convention. So, the online convention has been called off, and Americans Elect is trying to figure out where to go from here. Because the group is already on the ballot in the majority of U.S. states, Americans Elect finds itself in the odd position of being something of a party without a ticket.

Why didn’t the nonprofit’s idea for a nonpartisan candidate take off? One theory comes from University of California-Davis political science professor Walter Stone, who studies third-party politics. According to Stone, it may be a “myth that there is this underlying consensus out there that the [major] parties are just ignoring. And that’s fundamentally false…Parties differ because they tap into differing constituencies with different values, different interests and ideologies.” In other words, Stone suggests that the underlying assumption of Americans Elect—that Americans could achieve widespread agreement on politics if we just got rid of those nasty political parties—may have been shaky from the start.

More research would be necessary to affirm or deny Stone’s explanation, but nonetheless, we see a potential lesson in this little chapter for nonprofits embarking on new projects or initiatives: make sure you question and test all of your assumptions first—especially your most foundational assumption. If that’s not possible, you had better be open to the possibility that the results of your experiment may not turn out the way you had planned, and if that comes to pass, you’ll need to revise your course, as Americans Elect must now do. –Mike Keefe-Feldman