The candidate who will give President Obama the most trouble in 2012 may not even be a candidate right now. And she definitely won’t be a partisan nominee. While the Republican nominee may become the next president, it will not be the result of defeating President Obama in a two-way race; it will be because a third alternative entered the fray. 2012 is ripe for a serious challenge from a candidate who won’t be contesting in traditional party primaries.
The 2012 winner will be the candidate who is perceived as the most “grown-up” and who makes people feel that they are the best hope that democracy is at work.
And what better way to appear mature and democratic than to engage in a selection process that is open to all Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation? And can you imagine a more democratic process than an online presidential nomination process to pick the next president (check out the freakishly effective Americans Elect)?
Yes, the “winner takes all” system of the Electoral College stacks the deck against third party candidates. But both parties are incredibly damaged brands; 38% of Americans are now affiliated independents. And with social media technology revolutionizing the coordination of choice, there is a powerful and highly visible outlet for this new unaffiliated plurality. These new communication and coordination capabilities will undermine dominant and hierarchical organizational structures, in this case the two major parties. We don’t live in a world where “one size fits all,” as there is no identifiable average median voter. This is a country with an abundantly heterogeneous political complexion. The belief systems of the public are multidimensional, meaning that many people simultaneously hold liberal and conservative preferences. How about a ticket that manifests this diversity?
One of the keys to persuading and convincing voters is to make them feel like stakeholders. In 2008, President Obama ran a campaign that demonstrated that there is a deep yearning for political empowerment. Obama supporters felt they were key cogs in a social movement, demonstrating an enthusiasm for political and civic participation. But the realities of governance, and the constrictions of Party labels, means that President Obama is not inspiring the same level of participatory political engagement.
A ticket that runs against ideology and interest groups could be unbeatable in 2012. And the only way to do this is to forget the Parties.
In 1992, a charisma-challenged Ross Perot won almost 20% of the presidential vote, despite running a deeply erratic campaign. He ushered in a sense of democratic freedom for millions of Americans. The Party brands are even more damaged now than they were then. The economic challenges today are graver. Two charismatic candidates -- particularly a national unity combo of a liberal and a conservative -- on a ticket picked through a selection process directly controlled by the people and not the Parties, could easily double Perot’s vote share. And in a three-way race, that’s a victory.