Think the field of well-known presidential candidates is unusually crowded this year? That’s not the half of it.
True, the lineup of leading Democratic hopefuls stands at a whopping 21 candidates and at least one prominent Republican — former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld — who have announced their challenge to incumbent President Donald Trump. But that’s just the tip of the political iceberg.
Believing that it’s possible for anyone to rise from obscurity to running the Free World, a swelling number of unknown Americans are filing the simple paperwork required to toss a hat into the ring to be the next president of the United States.
Unfortunately for most of them, the only way they’ll ever get to be known outside their limited circle of friends and family would be for hard-core political junkies to track them down on the Federal Election Commission’s website.
Hobbled by the lack of a national profile or the big bucks required to mount a successful presidential run, the unknown candidates are destined to lurk only in the footnotes buried deep in federal campaign documents.
According to Ballotpedia, a website that tracks the daily entry of FEC records, of the 713 candidates who had filed by Friday, 241 filed as Democrats, 89 as Republicans, 25 as Libertarians and 14 as Green candidates. A great many others self-identified as nonpartisan, independent, or listed no party affiliation.
To declare as a presidential candidate, anyone can complete and sign an FEC Form 2, a single-page statement of candidacy. Once the FEC receives that document either online or in the mail, it assigns the applicant an identification number and post their name on the commission’s website. If a candidate expects to raise and spend more than $5,000 to promote their campaign, then an additional FEC Form 1, declaring a campaign finance committee, must be completed within 15 days of collecting the money.
Voila! That’s all it takes to be recognized by the federal government as an official presidential candidate.
Of course, there’s a lot more involved to getting elected than filing paperwork, and not just anyone is eligible to become president. The Constitution sets three requirements for the presidency: a candidate must be at least 35 years old, a U.S. resident for 14 years prior to election, and a natural-born citizen.
There’s also the significant hurdle of getting on the ballot, which varies from state to state and is far more complicated for non-major party hopefuls than it is for the major parties which have a system of state primaries and national conventions to pick a nominee. But that gets into the weeds of the electoral system, something neither the FEC nor vast majority of those filing to run are concerned about.
“The rules for filing to run for president are simple,” Miles Martin, a spokesman at the FEC, said in an interview. “We don’t qualify anyone or check to see if they meet the requirements to hold office. We simply accept the filing and make it public.”
As Election Day approaches, more presidential aspirants are expected to submit paperwork since there’s no filing fee or official cutoff date for prospective White House contenders. In the 2016 presidential cycle, 1,775 people filed the paperwork and declared themselves candidates for president.
Based on a cursory survey of the FEC list, the range of personalities bold enough to seek the White House is as vast and as varied as humanity itself. There are obvious gadflies and crackpots, such as someone who filed under the name of Voice Over Pete, a member of the heretofore unknown Ace Party. Another contender, Seven the Dog, is running as a nonpartisan candidate and, if somehow elected would presumably govern as a human being, not a canine. The titillatingly provocative, yet environmentally correct Sexy Vegan, meanwhile, has filed to run as an Independent.
In a February analysis of FEC filings, which at the time showed approximately 100 candidates, the Center for Responsive Politics listed candidates with comically curious names such as the “Black Label Empire (House of Lords) Darth Cyber Units,” — a campaign committee to elect Antonio McGee of Oklahoma City. (A recorded message associated with the phone number listed on the FEC form said the number was “currently suspended.”)
But there are also are sober and serious candidates, believe it or not, such as Libertarian Kim Ruff, a project manager for a suburban Phoenix, Arizona, manufacturing firm, who admitted she doesn’t have a real chance of winning even though she’s mounting a nationwide campaign.
Ruff said in an interview with ThinkProgress that she felt the need to carry the Libertarian banner in her campaign — to faithfully represent the party on the national stage and help the party’s down-ballot candidates get elected in local campaigns.
“In our 40 years of existence, [Libertarians] have failed to achieve that brass ring we are seeking because we have always tried to run these watered-down Republican candidates or something very modified in order to bridge that gap between us and the electorate,” Ruff said.
“In doing so we have sacrificed our foundational beliefs. What little bit of media attention we can get, we should use to speak unapologetically and very boldly about who we are as Libertarians and speak out against the duopoly in American politics.”
Jason Dunlap, a retired Army sergeant first class in Odenton, Maryland, is running as a Democrat and titled his campaign organization “The committee to put backbone in the White House.”
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Dunlap said he’s not taking campaign contributions and is seeking votes by talking to as many people “by word of mouth” and online. “I don’t think like other people,” he said. “I believe I can win by letting people hear my voice and asking for their vote; I don’t need to ask them for their gas money, too.”
Interestingly, some of these longest of long-shot campaigns have reported surprisingly huge campaign receipts and expenditures, often money taken from their own pockets or from loans in their name. For instance, Christin Noel Powers, a physical therapist from Detroit, reported in the first quarter of this year $97,657 in “candidate contributions.”
Powers’ website asks visitors “Please do not leave this site without making a $10 donation!” in their quixotic campaign to “Make America Happy Again.”
James Peppe of Montgomery, Texas filed in February as a Republican challenger to President Trump. According to the FEC filings, he’s received $5,665 in total campaign receipts, including $2,865 in individual contributions, $2,800 in candidate contributions. The campaign is also the beneficiary of $20,000 worth of loans made by the candidate.
A licensed financial investment advisor, Peppe said on his campaign website that he’s “a regular American, NOT a professional politician or wealthy celebrity.”
A brief stint working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., shortly after graduating from Yale in 1988, whet his appetite for politics. He ran unsuccessfully in 1992 for a seat in the Minnesota State Senate, retreating after that loss to a business career and steering clear of politics.
But Donald Trump’s election triggered him to get back involved in the political game. As he notes on his website:
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 awoke Peppe’s passion for service with a flood of mixed emotions. On the one hand, he was excited to witness the upending of the political establishment that for so long had promised so much to so many and delivered so little. On the other hand, he was stunned and disappointed to see America invest its hopes in a self-promoting individual of such questionable character as Trump.
In a campaign appearance earlier this month at Keene State College in New Hampshire, Peppe predicted he would shock the world by beating Trump in the GOP primaries, and then deliver a “50-state landslide” in the general election. That’s tall talk for a virtually unknown personality with 591 Twitter followers.
— Peppe4President (@Peppe2020) April 19, 2019
To be sure, it would score as the greatest upset in history since David felled Goliath, if Peppe — or any of the hundreds of other unknown candidates — break through to overcome their lack of recognition, limited resources, and non-existent media exposure to win the White House.
But that’s the beauty — and hope — of the American political system. After all, isn’t it possible that almost anyone can become the U.S. president?