In the wake of the Iowa straw poll – a particularly charming incarnation of the poll tax– and the late entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry, the news media is telling us that that the 2012 presidential field is starting to congeal.

Except that it’s not. Not even close. Because we don’t yet know what will happen with third parties. In the end, third parties might very well impact the selection of the next President more than the outcome of the GOP primaries and caucuses that are dominating the news.

At a time when the American electrate is about evenly divided between the two major political parties, and huge numbers are turned off by both parties, this 2012 presidential election could hinge on which third party, or parties, emerges to relative prominence. If it’s a liberal-friendly third party ticket that dominates the third party space in 2012, Obama will almost certainly lose. If it’s a conservative-friendly third party dominating, Obama could still pull it out, despite the environmental mega-trends – lack of peace or prosperity — working against his reelection.

A third party ticket led by Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump or their ilk looms on the right, and a ticket led by Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders or their ilk looms on the left. I’m as interested in those melodramas as I am about the more high profile Perry, Bachmann, Romney scrum.

And beyond the third party machinations on the left and right fringes, keep your eyes on a new third party wild card this year – Americans Elect. Americans Elect looks like it will be a centrist party, and is being promoted by center-left voices like syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman. Here is how they explain themselves.

Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process. We’re using the Internet to give every single voter—Democrat, Republican or independent—the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012. The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.

Americans Elect is a better way to choose a President, not a traditional 3rd party. Our nominating process is open to any qualified candidate and any registered voter—no matter their party. We have no ties to any political group—left, right, or center. We don’t promote any issues, ideology or candidates. None of our funding comes from special interests or lobbyists. Our only goal is to put a directly-nominated ticket on the ballot in 2012.

American voters want leadership that will work together to tackle the challenges facing our country. Americans Elect is open to candidates from any party—and when they choose their running mates, they’ll be required to choose one from a party other than their own. This will help produce candidates that don’t just say they’ll work with the other side, but ones who already are.

If this presumably well-intentioned effort gains prominence, Obama would seem to have the most to lose. In an attempt to woo the ideological middle, Obama has moved to the right of his liberal political base on deficit reduction, entitlement reform, health care reform, the Middle East Wars, and other issues. This would seem to make him better positioned to win swing voters than Bachmann, Romney or Perry, who have been more slavish champions of their party’s ideological fringe. Even if a centrist Americans Elect ticket only gains a net percentage or two of the moderate vote that would otherwise have gone to Obama, that could easily be enough to defeat Obama, and perhaps elect the most conservative president in modern times.

So the Republicans’ straw poll was cute and all, but the third parties quietly organizing in the shadows of the news media klieg lights could easily prove to be the straw that ultimately breaks President’s Obama’s back.

– Loveland