Let's get two things straight about next year's presidential election. The first is, quit whining about all those Republican candidates. Seventeen is nothing — there are already at least 459 officially registered presidential candidates. (A couple more could have signed up in the time it took you to read this sentence.) And second, not one more word about how everybody who's running sounds the same. Are you kidding? You can vote for an anarchist or a socialist or a prohibitionist, a vermin (really, that's his name, Vermin Supreme) or even a deity. You can vote for a cat. (Slogan: "The time is meeow!")
"We've certainly heard from an ample number of candidates from a broad political spectrum," agrees Christian Hilland, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission. These are determinedly diplomatic words from a guy who spends his days sorting through paperwork filed by candidates whose platforms include stuff like giving every American a free pony and turning Alcatraz Island into a temple of New Age music and light shows.
Sifting through the presidential declarations filed with the FEC is a rewarding journey through, depending on how you see it, either the richness of American political diversity or the crumbling fault lines of American mental health. There's a candidate from the Absolute Dictator Party who gives his name as Caesar St Augustine De Buonaparte and complains on his FEC papers that he's the victim of civil rights violations by the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission and the media. Right under that is his catchy campaign slogan, "God Blast America!"
Then there's Temperance Alesha Lance-Council of the Anti-Hypocrisy Party, who says she's an actress and refers voters to her listing on the Internet Movie Data Base. Though it lists no films or TV shows she has ever appeared in, it does boast that she was once mentioned in the National Enquirer (headline: KNOCKOUT BEAUTIES THROWING THEMSELVES AT TYSON) and ran a Los Angeles marathon clad only in a loincloth to protest South African apartheid.
And though her campaign Twitter page is short on policy statements it's packed with a contemplative candor you're unlikely to get from Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. "Sometimes I like to tell myself that I'm #Angelina Jolie," Lance-Council muses. "LOL! But...I keep my delusions & my mis-rememberings IN MY HEAD, where they belong."
Other candidates are less inclined to hide their lamp under a basket. Princess Khadijah M. Jacob-Fambro of San Francisco, running as a candidate of the Revolutionary Party, flat-out declared "I am God!!" on her FEC statement. (To be fair, she may only have been trying to impress the rapper Lil Wayne, to whom she proposed on that same statement.) Only slightly more modest was Andre Ventura of Detroit, who named God as his running mate. (Address: Omni Present. Phone: Prayer.)
Virtually no political or social point on the compass goes unrepresented in the FEC filings. You could vote for Terry Jones, the Gainesville pastor who caused a ruckus, to put it mildly, a couple of years ago with his plan to publicly burn copies of the Koran. (Go ahead, admit it, you're surprised Florida didn't turn up much higher in this story.) Or for San Antonio's Pogo Reese, the only known candidate whose resume includes the line "former licensed exotic dancer."
Nor is this a crowd inclined to substitute vague mush for specific policy proposals. The Facebook campaign page of Vermin Supreme, the Boston performance artist who promises free ponies, pledges his administration will fund time-travel research so that he can "kill the infant-Hitler with his own bare hands. (You don't want the Holocaust to happen, DO YOU?!?)"
Many candidates offer refreshingly original interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Boynton Beach's Piotr Blass, who has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Michigan, was born to Polish parents in Poland, which seems to run afoul of all that stuff in Article II of the Constitution requiring a president to be a "natural born citizen" of the United States.
But when the Herald reached Blass by phone last week (in, ahem, Poland), he airily insisted that the Supreme Court will be on his side when he wins. "I have been a model citizen of the United States for more than 35 years now," he explained. "I believe the equal protection clause of the Constitution means I must be entitled to equal treatment as that accorded to a 35-year-old native-born citizen."
Even more novel is the approach of Limberbutt McCubbins, a Feline-American — what in less enlightened days we called a "cat" — from Louisville, Ky., who at 5 years of age is well short of the 35 required by the Constitution. But his campaign manager, a high school student named Isaac Weiss, is adamant that Limberbutt is eligible: "The Constitution doesn't say it has to be human years." There's also some doubt about Limberbutt's citizenship, since he's an adopted stray. "But it doesn't seem likely that he walked all the way to Louisville from Canada, or Mexico, or swam from Cuba," notes Weiss quite sensibly.
Weiss and some friends decided to file election papers for Limberbutt after being bored senseless by watching a TV newscast about what seemed to them like about the umpteenth announcement of a new presidential candidate. "It only took us about 20 minutes to fill out the forms, which surprised us," said Weiss, "and it surprised us even more that nobody from the FEC got back to us about Limberbutt being a cat after reporters started doing stories."
Imitation being the sincerest and possibly only form of flattery in American politics, the news of Limberbutt's entry into the race triggered FEC paperwork for a Crustacean-American candidate with the easy-to-remember name of Crawfish Crawfish, who listed his (her?) campaign committee's address as Bayou Avoyellis Parish, La. (Humans, too, sometimes stumble over the FEC requirement for addresses; All Mother Earth Party candidate Todd Wade Willey listed his as United States of America, Planet Earth.)
Whether a candidate lives under a rotting log in a swamp, is a U.S. citizen or even a human being isn't really a concern at the FEC. "Every state has its rules about how to get on the ballot, and that's where things like the presidential eligibility of cats will come up," says Hilland. "What we're concerned about here is compliance with laws on campaign spending and fundraising."
Legally, presidential candidates don't have to file with the FEC until they've raised $5,000 for their campaigns, which is about $5,000 more than almost any of them are likely to get. "But, for whatever reason, a lot of them file before they legally need to — well before that, in many cases," says Hilland. "I'm sure they have their reasons, but you'd have to ask them."
That's often more difficult than it sounds. Tracking down candidates from their FEC paperwork often leads into a miasma of broken Web links and abandoned Twitter accounts. Sometimes their obscurity is so profound that it almost seems deliberate — and sometimes it is. When a Herald reporter finally located D.R. Skeens, the candidate of the Hedonistic Existentialist Party, at his home in Olympia, Wash., he refused to say a word about his candidacy.
"I'm doing this campaign without talking to reporters," he said. "The press just pushes the negative to the top. It doesn't talk about the positive." Sounds like the White House press room might get turned into a bowling alley in a Skeens administration.
There are, of course, candidates from what might be politely termed out-of-mainstream parties who are pleased that somebody wants to talk to them, even when they know they might wind up as the butt of a joke. "A lot of people tell me they think I'm crazy," said Jim Hedges of Needmore, Pa. ("as in, I need more votes") who expects to be named the nominee when the Prohibitionist Party's 35 members hold their convention in a conference telephone call next month. "You need to have a thick skin to be a third-party candidate."
The Prohibitionists were a party with some real clout in the 1920s, but went into a tailspin when the 13-year U.S. experiment with banning alcohol dissolved into a melange of bootlegging and gangsterism. ("Bad press," shrugs Hedges without rancor.) Its problems in recent times have been less ideological — the last chief sold its office and moved the party into a storage shed. Hedges will judge the 2016 campaign a success if the party can make the ballot in four states.
"That may not sound like much to you," he said. "But it would be four times as many as we made last time. We know we aren't going to win — we're more like an exercise in living history, just trying to influence the debate in some way."
And that's what's important to remember about those 459 candidates, says W. Knox Richardson, whose Helluva Party has the best name of any party but still doesn't expect to finish much higher than 459th. "What all these candidates represent is a growing awareness by people that they have access to the system, and they're starting to use it," Richardson said. "They have something to say, even if they aren't exactly sure what the best way is to say it."
Richardson, who lives in Las Vegas and says his most important qualification for the White House is that he's "the only presidential hopeful who's a working poker dealer," admits he decided to found a party as a kind of cynical joke about an electoral process that he long ago lost trust in. Using campaign slogans like Adlai Stevenson's crack that "in America, any boy may become President, and I suppose that's just the risk he takes," certainly reflects that.
"But it's also true that we're recruiting people to work in this campaign, and if we get 150 of them and they do it and have a good time and don't come away hating it, that's something," he said. "That's getting people to join and participate, and really, that's something.
"And if they don't, then we still had a Helluva Party."