The prospect of a White House run by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has reignited a critical debate about whether it’s possible for an independent to be elected president of the United States.
Consider this paradox: Two leading 2016 presidential candidates – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – have no history of loyalty to either major party. Yet both decided to run in the party primaries, while pledging to support their party’s winner should they not win the nomination. That these two different candidates came to similar conclusions helps illustrate why there is so much dissatisfaction with our nation’s political system.
As billionaires, people such as Trump and Bloomberg can self-fund an independent campaign, but without adequate liquid resources, other qualified candidates can’t mount a serious bid for the U.S. presidency outside the two major parties.
Based on a little-known rider to the 2014 reconciliation bill, Democratic and Republican presidential nominees receive $834,000 per person, per year, through their parties for use in the campaigns. But unaffiliated candidates can collect only $2,700 each.
And if you are the Democratic or Republican nominee, your party will automatically appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the District. If you are an independent candidate, you must get your name on the ballot through 51 separate signature drives.
In the 2012 campaign cycle, Americans Elect (which we, respectively, co-founded and supported) completed the largest signature drive in U.S. history. More than 2.6 million people in 41 states signed our petitions demanding that an independent candidate for president appear on their state’s ballot. The cost was more than $12 million.
And those who run as a Democrat or Republican know that if they win the nomination, they are guaranteed a place in the fall presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates requires all candidates to average at least 15 percent support in the polls just seven weeks before the election.
While 15 percent may seem reasonable, applying such a threshold so late in a three-way race creates an insurmountable Catch-22. A candidate needs to have 60 to 80 percent name recognition to have any hope of polling at 15 percent. But the mass media will not seriously cover an independent candidate until his or her debate status is clarified. The cost of achieving 60 to 80 percent name recognition without significant free media exceeds $250 million.
One of the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates, former Republican Party chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., said on national television that “it would be great” to see a third candidate in this fall’s debates. He did not mention that in October he led a behind-closed-doors vote to sustain the rule.
The good news is that these anti-competitive debate rules don’t have the force of law. They can be modified or eliminated. Instead, a third candidate for the debates could be determined by a competitive, cross-country signature drive. Or unaffiliated candidates could compete for a third spot based on a primary for independents.
It would be great if Bloomberg decided to run for president in 2016. But what about 2020 and beyond? We think serious independent candidates would be willing to run for president if they could count on a fair fight between them and the major party nominees.
Peter Ackerman is chairman of Level the Playing Field, which advocates for an independent presidential candidacy. Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.