Running a third-party candidacy is no picnic. Just ask Russell Verney, senior political adviser to H. Ross Perot during the 1992 presidential election and his 1996 campaign manager.
Perot headlined the two most successful third-party campaigns in modern U.S. political history. The Dallas native and billionaire received 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996 — not enough to win any electoral college votes but staggeringly large tallies for an independent. “In ’92 and ’96 there was a real hunger for a change from politics as usual,” Verney says. “That’s the case now, except on steroids.”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week confirmed to the Financial Times that he is considering a third-party run for the White House. The billionaire says he would largely use his own money to finance the campaign, from the signature petition to get on state ballots to the final week of intense advertising.
Bloomberg has a shot at victory, Verney says, but there are some opportunities his team has to embrace and pitfalls to avoid to get there. Here are a few suggestions from this veteran of third-party presidential politics.
1) Don’t stay in the shadows past March 2. Bloomberg is enjoying a strategic advantage by being able to watch the primaries to see who his prospective opponents will be. “Other third-party candidates would be out raising money to fund their petition drives,” Verney says. “He doesn’t have to do that, so he has the luxury of waiting on the sidelines a few more weeks.”
But this doesn’t mean the staff is idle. “Most of what the Bloomberg team is doing are not things we can see publicly,” he says. “They will need a lot of research from each state on what it takes to get on the ballot. That comes from a contracted legal firm, so we wouldn’t see that piece in action.”
Staying idle too long could be a mistake, since getting Bloomberg on the ballots is such a manpower-intensive process. Verney says that the critical date is March 2, one day after the Texas primary. According to the Texas secretary of state: “The petitions can be circulated beginning after March 1, 2016. For 2016, the petition must contain 79,939 signatures of registered voters who did not vote in the presidential primary of either party.”
Verney says Texas’ requirements are tougher than many other states, and any delay could hamper the collection of that high number of signatures. “That makes March 2 the kickoff date, when his campaign has to become visible,” he says.
2) Set up separate teams to do the politics and the signature drive. Verney still sounds weary when he discusses the Perot campaign’s effort to get on 50 different state ballots, each with their unique rules and requirements. “The job of getting your name on all of them is simply monumental,” he says. “It’s something that can consume the entire operation.” Obsession with the signatures can take the focus off of the candidate’s message and public presentation as a prospective winner.
But those signatures are critical, so Verney’s advice is to set up independent efforts. “Run them in parallel,” he says. “And have people on the streets with clipboards to collect signatures on day one.”
3) Make sure to be included on the debate stages. In 1996, Perot was excluded from debates with President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole. Verney is still seething. “Bloomberg needs to create a strategy in case he’s locked out of the debates by the fraudulent Commission on Presidential Debates.” The commission is nothing of the sort — it’s a company that runs debates, founded by the Democratic and Republican parties. “And they don’t like competition,” Verney says.
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In 1992, Perot’s performance helped propel his polling and turnout numbers to historic third-party highs. Not so in 1996. This is one of several factors that hurt Perot’s second run, but it’s the most-cited reason for the dip in votes. “Most of us are visual people,” Verney says. “When we see two people in a debate, we see a visible choice between them. That’s all you think your choices are.”
To combat such a move by the parties, Verney doesn’t recommend buying competing airtime or holding a shadow debate, but instead suggests a shame campaign to get Bloomberg on that stage. “This is a public relations and media effort,” he says.
There may be reason for Bloomberg to hold out hope that this won’t be a repeat of 1996. In late January, the co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates told a public television series that they are “giving serious thought” to the inclusion of a third-party candidate on this year’s debates. So this is yet another wild card in an already chaotic race.
4) Avoid being seen as a “wasted vote.” Verney calls this “this most critical idea to deflect” in a third-party race: the tendency to vote based on who people think will win, because the vote will mean more. This saps turnout, but also opens up the chance for the established candidates to poach their voters. “H.W. Bush and Clinton both did this,” Verney says. “They take the ideas that people are responding to and say that they agree.” The best solution to this problem is to attack the idea from the start. “You have to make clear that the only vote for legitimate change is the one for the independent.”