Where are the candidates?

WASHINGTON — The nascent third-party movement called Americans Elect assembled a dream team of prospective presidential nominees:

Mike Bloomberg!

Colin Powell!

Chris Christie!

Mitch Daniels!

Condi Rice!

Rick Santorum!

Hillary Clinton!

There was only one problem: None of these candidates wanted the nomination. Neither did the other “draft” candidates who received support on the Americans Elect Web site, including Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Howard Dean, Donald Trump, Al Gore, Sarah Palin and David Petraeus.

Those who did want to run were not the sort of candidates the organizers of the third-party movement had in mind. There was Kenneth Domagala, who garnered 43 supporters as of this writing; he advocates making Cuba the 51st state. Also available for the nomination was J.L. Mealer (82 supporters), who is promoting a “massive new tax base created from the Mealer Plans,” and David Jon Sponheim (92 supporters), who gives top billing to legalized marijuana.

Dwight Smith (225 supporters) also failed to attract enough enthusiasm, but he’ll probably make another go of it in 2016. He claims he has been running for president for 52 years.

Faced with this twin disappointment — desirable candidates being uninterested and interested candidates being undesirable — Americans Elect has announced that it is abandoning its online nominating process because no candidate had reached its minimum threshold. This is profoundly depressing, and not just because it dashes the Domagala plan to admit Cuba to the union. It’s discouraging because it shows politics may be too broken to fix.

Americans Elect had taken care of just about everything a third-party candidate would need. It spent about $35 million on marketing, technology and ballot access. As of Tuesday it had won a place on the November ballot in 28 states (and it still expects to be on the ballot in all 50 by Aug. 1). It had attracted 3.5 million people to its website. But what it hasn’t been able to do is persuade a plausible candidate to face the ravages of a presidential run.

“We’ve had hundreds of (candidate) briefings,” Kahlil Byrd, the group’s chief executive, told me on Tuesday. “We have met with current and former governors, current and former senators, university presidents, think tanks, mayors of large cities and people who have been running Fortune 300 companies.”

The main objection Byrd heard from these would-be candidates: “Do I want to put myself and my family through what it takes?” Looking at the prospect of running, Byrd said, candidates saw only negative ads and attack politics. Among would-be candidates, there was fear and loathing of “the permanent and negative campaign.” Another person involved with Americans Elect said that would-be candidates feared they would be subject to particularly brutal treatment by the party they abandoned.

Complaints about nasty politics are nothing new, but it adds a new layer of despair to think this has become such a deterrent that all qualified candidates would refuse the free offer of a turnkey presidential campaign and ballot access in all 50 states. This suggests there’s little hope for a jolt to the system from a modern-day Teddy Roosevelt, or even a Ross Perot.

Or, for that matter, a Ron Paul. The libertarian candidate decided this week that he would no longer campaign actively for the Republican nomination, surrendering to the inevitable. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chairman, told reporters Tuesday that Mitt Romney’s delegate lead appears “insurmountable.” Yet even Paul, who ran as a third-party candidate in 1988, isn’t interested in the Americans Elect nomination.

This is just the problem venture capitalist Peter Ackerman was trying to fix when he pumped millions of dollars into Americans Elect — to remove the “barrier to entry,” as Byrd put it, keeping prospective candidates away from a run.

The American public, it would seem, is ready for an alternative. Trust in government has never been lower. Romney is the first choice of few in his party, and President Obama hasn’t been able to re-create the energy of 2008 among disenchanted followers; there were thousands of empty seats at his kickoff rally in Ohio last week.

Yet the best the third-party movement came up with was Buddy Roemer, the Louisiana gadfly who tried for the Republican nomination earlier this year. He has just more than 6,000 supporters, or nearly 4,000 short of what he needed to qualify as a candidate.

The lack of takers suggests the political system is farther gone than the reformers realized.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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