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Guest Post: Americans Elect: The ‘Little Big Man’ of Astroturf?

Editor’s note: Dr. Dawg has asked to make the following guest post here at Irregular Times, and we’re glad to oblige. — Jim Cook

Americans Elect: The ‘Little Big Man’ of Astroturf?

by Dr. Dawg

As every online marketer knows, registering lots of web site users is one thing, but getting and keeping them engaged in the site’s community of users is quite another. The ability of a web-based property to attract, retain and engage users beyond the initial visit is referred to as its ‘stickiness’.

How sticky is Americans Elect (AE), the secretive corporation bankrolled and organized by junk-bond billionaire Peter Ackerman to conduct an ostensibly ‘grassroots’ online nomination process for a ‘centrist’ third-party presidential ticket in 2012?

According to our confidential source within AE, as of this week Americans Elect has registered a total of just over 125,900 members via its web site (a number in keeping with AE’s own September 1 tweet announcing it had just topped 100,000 members — http://twitter.com/#!/AmericansElect/status/109329039004667904).

It is interesting and informative to compare these numbers with other data regarding Americans Elect to glean the first quantitative view of Americans Elect Corporation’s true impact to date:

* According to its forum web site (hosted by Get Satisfaction), 2,913 AE members are registered users of the AE forum, which is the only mechanism available for AE members to freely discuss among themselves the organization and the issues at length. That is to say, since its founding, just 2.3% of AE members have been sufficiently engaged to move on to participate, even minimally, in the membership’s debates. This historical conversion rate, dating back to AE’s founding, has held reasonably constant of late even in the face of AE’s recently much-increased advertising and slick web site design expenditures: since we began tracking AE’s vital statistics in early September of this year its rate of new forum participant growth has equaled 2.7% of AE’s membership growth over the same period — no significant change from the overall rate since its founding. AE’s active membership, as reflected by this forum participant metric, is about equal to the number of fans in the home stand at a middling-sized high school football game on a Friday night.

* As of this week, AE’s web site reports that its signature drive to petition for ballot access in all 50 states has collected 1,874,714 signatures (in an effort managed by the notorious D.C. hired guns, Arno Political Consultants). Given that AE has only 125,900 members, that means that at least 93% of those petition signers…and probably an even higher percentage…are not AE members, but rather just people accosted at random outside WallyWorld by Arno Political Consultants’ minions.

* Also as of this week, the AE web site touts a total of 6,740,190 questions answered in its “True Colors” online survey of its members’ opinions on the policy issues of the day. That means that the average AE member answers 54 of the survey’s 300 questions before losing interest and moving on — an 18% completion rate.

With its modest membership roll of just 125,900 (equaling 0.05% of the U.S. voting age population in 2010), its microscopic ‘base’ of 2,913 active members, its failure to convert casual petition signers into new members, and its disappointing 18% completion rate for the True Colors survey, Americans Elect Corporation must be something of a disappointment, in terms of return on investment, for founding father Peter Ackerman. Ackerman’s $1.5 million bankrolling of Americans Elect (that we know of, prior to the organization’s change in status in 2010 to a 501(c)(4) corporation exempt from donor reporting requirements) works out to a cost of about $515 per active member.

Per square foot, Ackerman’s Americans Elect Corporation looks to be among the most expensive astroturf ever bought and paid for in the history of American plutocracy… and, so far, among the least impactful. But of course, anyone can look big on the Web with the help of a couple of Javascript programmers.

[About the author: Dr. Dawg, a retired technology entrepreneur, has been a student of political co-optation best practices since getting his head cracked open in 1969 anti-war demonstrations. He is an accidental 1%er who strives to employ his unwarranted blessings for good, not evil. His dog, Old Gus, is an avid fan of Willie Nelson.]

18 comments to Guest Post: Americans Elect: The ‘Little Big Man’ of Astroturf?

  • This essay would be more persuasive if the author didn’t use pejoratives against the petitioning process. All non-major parties in the United States are forced to go out on the streets and get signatures, or else those parties can’t run candidates. Sometimes they need over 100,000 raw signatures, as in California and North Carolina. To call the petition gatherers “minions” and to say the “accost” people shows hostility, not just to Americans Elect, but to all non-establishment parties, and independent candidates as well. Also the Arno Company isn’t headquartered in D.C. It is based in California.

  • Dr. Dawg

    Richard, I apologize for any unintended offense; I too have done my time standing out in front of Krogers bugging strangers with a clipboard and pen. It is (or can be) a noble service, particularly when conducted by volunteers simply for the love of a cause. But in Arno’s case it may be a pretty seedy (and certainly a very lucrative) business…the list of public accusations against Arno Political Consultants is a long and unattractive one, indeed. The interested reader can Google as well as I can, so I won’t assemble the references here.

    And thank you for catching my error: APC is indeed California-based.

  • Paulie

    It is (or can be) a noble service, particularly when conducted by volunteers simply for the love of a cause.

    It can be a noble service even when done by people who are not independently wealthy, and actually have to make a living while working to give voters more choices. Speaking as someone who has done plenty of both paid and volunteer petitioning.

    But in Arno’s case it may be a pretty seedy (and certainly a very lucrative) business…

    It may be lucrative for Arno, but the working petitioners are not making much. And while it may be that some of them are not presenting true facts about AE, many are. There is nothing seedy about allowing voters to have that additional choice, even if you are skeptical of AE leadership’s motives (as I am).

    In fact, I believe it is beyond outrageous that states erect the ballot access barriers that make such petitioning necessary at all.

    • Anonymous

      Classic misdirection, as in:
      “Withdraw from Iraq? What? You don’t support our troops???

      It ain’t about the lowlies with the clipboard, buddy, it’s about the puppeteers on high. AE = plutocrats.

      • Paulie

        I fully agree with you on that. You might see that if you read my comments on previous posts in the Americans Elect category here.

        I was addressing a more narrow point made within the article and comments.

  • Paulie

    the list of public accusations against Arno Political Consultants is a long and unattractive one, indeed. The interested reader can Google as well as I can, so I won’t assemble the references here.

    Many of the accusations are made by people who want to keep certain parties, initiatives and/or independent candidates off the ballot, or prevent some parties from registering more voters.

    Some are true, some are not.

    Some may be the fault of Arno, others may be the fault of subcontractors or individual petitioners.

  • Paulie

    bugging strangers with a clipboard and pen.

    Some people feel bugged while others are grateful for the opportunity to sign.

    I would say the majority are neither — it takes only a few seconds to either sign or politely decline. What’s the big deal?

    AE may well be bogus, although I don’t know for a fact that it can’t turn out to be a good thing, and Arno is only passing about 20% of the money to the people actually getting the signatures, but IMO they have no less right to be on the ballot than the Democrats and Republicans who get to be on automatically, or other parties such as Libertarians and Greens that have to petition in many states.

    As a matter of fact many people in the general public have no idea that parties other than D/R-oids have to gather many thousands of signatures to be on the ballot, and react with shock, disgust or even disbelief when told that is the case.

    What really bugs me is not being asked to sign a petition, or even asking someone else to sign one, but the arrogant duopolist cartel politicians who have passed the discriminatory ballot access laws that make such activity necessary to begin with. Those politicians bug me to no end.

    That is why I always tend to believe by default that putting any party or independent candidate on the ballot that is an alternative to the existing big two is a good thing (even if it is a party or candidate I strongly oppose). It’s also why I support taking as many issues as possible out of the hands of these politicians and putting them up for an initiative/referendum vote – even issues I oppose. And finally, it is why I believe that it is generally good to subject as many of them to elections as frequently as possible through the recall process.

    • Brad R.

      Paulie,

      Just curious where you got your information about the finances of AE. I worked on the CA petition (my pay ranged from $1.25 to $2.00 when I could get the bonus). If Arno was seriously getting $6.25 per signature (20% like you say) and only paying me and others 1.25 then I think Americans Elect should hear that.

      I don’t really know much about Arno as I deal only with their manager but that would be pretty bad. I would happily manage the whole state for half that money!

      • Paulie

        Brad, the info on what AE pays Arno is from here at Irregular Times.

        They pay $4-5 per raw signature to Arno in every state and get about 2x the requirement (some states more) plus expenses. Most of the expense money does not actually make it to the petitioners. Even though Arno is getting paid for double the requirement (or 1.6 times the requirement in CA), petitioners get docked on validity below 75% – but Arno keeps the difference as long as it is above 50%.

        And this is on pay rates of 1.00 to 2.00 depending in the state.

        Then there are the validity games played by certain Arno subs who claim bad validity when there is actually good validity.

        And, petitioners who get over 75% cutoff on validity (say 85%) put extra money in Arno’s pocket since their validity makes up for anyone else whose validity was bad to weigh the average.

        So suppose your validity is 70% one week (or so they claim), you get paid on 70% of your work at say 1.50 (IE 1.05) and your expenses don’t get paid. But Arno gets paid for 100% of those same signatures at 4.00 plus expenses.

        • Paulie

          And in fact I believe I could do the whole country for significantly less money than Arno, although of course they wouldn’t let me.

          I’ve qualified third party statewide ballot drives for far less than half of what Arno is charging AE.

  • Tom

    If we had publicly funded elections there would be no need for all these other groups with their own (sometimes hidden) agendas – it would all be out in the open for everyone to read up on and choose accordingly. Our political system is so “gamed” now from the local to the national level by vested interests and big money corporations that it effectively doesn’t work any longer as it was designed and it can’t be fixed from within (as we continue to see).

    If we had free health care for everyone (like Congress gets – on our dime) there wouldn’t be the need for rapacious insurance companies (who then deny service AFTER it’s paid for and when you need it most).

    i found this interesting:
    http://www.disinfo.com/2011/10/16-things-libya-will-never-see-again/
    1.There is no electricity bill in Libya; electricity is free for all its citizens.
    2.There is no interest on loans, banks in Libya are state-owned and loans given to all its citizens at zero percent interest by law.
    3.Having a home considered a human right in Libya.
    4.All newlyweds in Libya receive $60,000 dinar (U.S.$50,000) by the government to buy their first apartment so to help start up the family.
    5.Education and medical treatments are free in Libya. Before Gaddafi only 25 percent of Libyans were literate. Today, the figure is 83 percent.
    6.Should Libyans want to take up farming career, they would receive farming land, a farming house, equipments, seeds and livestock to kickstart their farms are all for free.
    7.If Libyans cannot find the education or medical facilities they need, the government funds them to go abroad, for it is not only paid for, but they get a U.S.$2,300/month for accommodation and car allowance.
    8.If a Libyan buys a car, the government subsidizes 50 percent of the price.
    9.The price of petrol in Libya is $0.14 per liter.
    10.Libya has no external debt and its reserves amounting to $150 billion are now frozen globally.
    11.If a Libyan is unable to get employment after graduation the state would pay the average salary of the profession, as if he or she is employed, until employment is found.
    12.A portion of every Libyan oil sale is credited directly to the bank accounts of all Libyan citizens.
    13.A mother who gives birth to a child receive U.S.$5,000.
    14.40 loaves of bread in Libya costs $0.15.
    15.25 percent of Libyans have a university degree.
    16.Gaddafi carried out the world’s largest irrigation project, known as the Great Manmade River project, to make water readily available throughout the desert country.

  • Dr. Dawg

    I personally share commenters’ conviction that the American political duopoly, fueled with tons of plutocratic cash and systematically stacked against upstarts, is unfair and is the foundation of many of our problems today…which is what originally attracted me to Americans Elect and motivated me to look into it. But anything good and promising…such as the rising tide of sentiment in America today for new political alternatives…can (and often will) be co-opted by clever folks with an interest in maintaining the status quo, a surplus of cash, and a shortage of moral checks and balances.

    Insidious as they may be, efforts by entrenched interests to co-opt rising movements are probably a necessary rite of passage and a healthy sign, of sorts. No entrenched interest will invest the considerable time, effort, and money required to thoroughly co-opt a movement if that movement is marginal and inconsequential. Efforts to co-opt a movement are evidence that the movement has made it to the big leagues. Co-opters come with a sympathetic smile, a wad of cash, and the offer of a helping hand, and their attentions can be very heartening…and deadly. Eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty.

  • Lee Mortimer

    Bravo to Paulie (and others) for injecting some some balanced commentary in this discussion. There are legitimate questions to be asked about Americans Elect’s transparency and accountability. But I have yet to see anyone state a bottom line threat to democracy in America if AE succeeds in holding a secure online convention and place a third presidential ticket on the ballot as an alternative to the Republican-Democrat duopoly.

    How much money Peter Ackerman has invested in the effort will have relatively little impact on the eventual nominees. Their success or failure will be determined by the quality of the candidates and the positions they articulate during the election campaign. No one expects them to win the election. But the effort could have a beneficial effect by weakening the stranglehold that Republicans and Democrats have had on U.S. elections for far too long

  • I enjoyed reading this big long thread, and congratulations to Irregular Times for getting such a good streak going.

  • Brad M

    Dr Dawg,

    Just for comparison purposes could you provide the data and statistics on the following:

    How many people who call themselves Democrats and Republicans are actually dues paying members of their parties? And what is that percentage of the respective party?
    How many Dems and Reps actually ever give a penny to “their” party organization? And what is that percentage of the total Dem/Rep’s party?
    How may Dems and Reps actually ever give a penny to a candidate from their party? And what is that percentage of total Dem/Reps?
    How many Dems and Reps ever post on any political website or their own conservative/progressive/evangelical/liberal blog? And what is that percentage of total Dem/Reps?
    How many Dems and Reps ever step into a precinct party meeting? And what is that percentage of total Dem/Reps?
    How many Dems and Reps ever complete any survey online for “their” party? And what is that percentage of total Dem/Reps?
    How many Dems and Reps would ever contribute a single penny if they had to pay for their own party’s primary or caucus costs?

    p.s. Dr. Dawg Did you know Willie Nelson endorsed Republican Gary Johnson? Your dog Gus would be proud. Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman are my dogs in the Republican race. The only two candidates other than Ron Paul to answer questions directly without spin and triangulation.

  • Lee Mortimer

    There may be some interest in an “open letter” from Kahlil Byrd that AE posted yesterday (10/31). It attempts to address questions raised by a prospective delegate named “Wayne A from Illinois.” Regarding AE’s non-disclosure of donors, Kahlil writes:

    “Americans Elect is challenging the status quo. It was clear from the beginning that the funds needed to gain ballot access and build the technology could not be raised unless givers could be protected from public attack. This is why AE is allowing small donors and large lenders to disclose whether they have given to AE, and how much, at their own pace and in their own time.”

    This may not satisfy everyone, but it is AE’s rationale for not identifying its funding sources, a practice allowed under its status as a 501(c)4 corporation and upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling. The “open letter” also says that AE will be posting its 990 Tax Return “soon.” View the documents at: https://secure.americanselect.org/official-documents

  • Ralph

    Byrd’s letter mentions claims that the founding donors of American Elect will “have absolutely no undue influence over the process and rules for selecting the nominee, issues that American people want candidates to address, or the outcome of the vote in June. Several independent structures will insure this.”

    That is the first time I have heard that Americans Elect will have independent structures to stop the founding donors from having undue influence over the nomination process. According to the latest bylaws I have seen, the Board of Directors appoints itself with no oversight from the delegates, and committees like the Candidate Selection Committee are appointed by the Board of Directors and can be dismissed by the Board of Directors at any time for any reason.

    What “independent structures” is Byrd talking about?

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