Jonathan Bernstein flags some silliness from John Avlon about Americans Elect:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the basic fact of this particular election cycle—when a president is running for reelection, it tends to be a referendum. Third-party candidacies do best when there is not an incumbent on the ballot or after an extended period of one-party rule with weak opposition [bold mine-DL].

As Bernstein notes, that’s just false. 1912, 1948, 1992, and 1996 were elections in which an incumbent was on the ballot, and in all of those elections third party candidates did remarkably well. 1980 can be included on the list, too, but Anderson’s showing wasn’t as impressive. Bernstein reminds us about La Follette’s 1924 run as the Progressive candidate, which received 16% of the vote.

According to Avlon’s rules, 2008 should have been a banner year for third-party candidates. There was no incumbent, and Republicans had controlled the White House for eight years, and the presidential party had controlled Congress five of those years. Instead, 2008 was one of the worst showings for the minor parties in several cycles. The four most successful minor party candidates received a total of 1.23% of the vote. After the disaster of the Bush years, and especially because of the spoiler role third party candidates had in 2000, there was much less temptation on both left and right to cast protest votes. This year, Obama’s approval has been good enough that there is no incentive for anyone to run as a protest candidate, and despite progressives’ many disappointments with Obama there is once again minimal interest in casting protest votes in an election that is expected to be fairly close.

Americans Elect failed because it stood for almost nothing, and what it did stand for (bipartisanship, mindless “centrism”) are things that the people who vote for third party candidates dislike or don’t value as something desirable in itself. Americans Elect is a financially opaque, unaccountable organization that pretends to be a vehicle of transparency and political accountability. It has no program or agenda, and it cannot identify substantively where the government has gone wrong under the current two-party system. All that it is capable of doing is complaining that members of the two parties are insufficiently chummy and collaborative, and it has presented this message at a time when there is not much confidence in either major party.

Successful third party candidacies have to tap into discontent with something specific about the incumbent, or they have to represent a more radical challenge to both parties. To the extent that it has a political position, it is the opposite of radical, and it has floundered because its backers don’t really disagree with Obama about very much in terms of policy. It is an organization of Tom Friedmans with ballot access.