He may have had millions of built-in supporters around the country, but one glaring reality kept the Stephen Colbert for President train from gaining any steam: You can't win if you're not on the ballot.
Yes, we found out Thursday that Colbert's bid to get on the ballot in his home state of South Carolina was rejected by the state's Democratic Party because it didn't consider him a legitimate candidate.
But the reality is that while you can technically run for president in one state, the only way to actually have a shot at the White House is to get on the ballot in all 50. This requires the major candidates to spend tens — or in some cases hundreds — of millions of dollars, which means that the many fringe candidates who are struggling to get on one or two states' ballots have no shot at the big prize.
According to campaign-finance laws, once someone who is running for office has raised or spent more than $5,000, he or she is considered a legitimate candidate, said George Smaragdis, a spokesperson for the Federal Election Committee. "Anyone can file," he said, "and once you raise or spend that $5,000, it doesn't matter if you're on the ballot in one state or 50 states. Can you possibly win the nomination being on the ballot in one state? It's not likely."
As of October, Smaragdis said 48 candidates had registered to run for president and reached the $5,000 ceiling, while 199 others have filled out the paperwork but haven't yet raised or spent enough money. And, as in past years, Smaragdis said he expects that number to rise even higher as the election draws closer.
Though at one point he claimed he was flirting with running as both a Republican and a Democrat in South Carolina, Colbert said he ultimately went with the Democrats because the fee to file for the Republican Party was $35,000, versus the Dems' $2,500. And even if he wanted to switch allegiances now, the faux-conservative Colbert has missed his chance, as the filing period for presidential candidates to get on the Republican ballot in the state ended at 5 p.m. Thursday, according to Rob Godfrey, communications director for the South Carolina Republican Party.
"Unfortunately, the filing period has closed," he said, noting that 11 people made the cut. If he hadn't balked at the high price of candidacy, Colbert might have made it an even dozen, Godfrey added, because "any candidate who meets the constitutional requirements, the federal election requirements and files the appropriate paperwork and pays the fees can be on our ballot." Godfrey would not speculate on how the Republican Party in his state would have treated a Colbert bid, since the comedian did not attempt to file.
Joan Hoff, the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, said Colbert might have had a good laugh about his brief snack-chip-sponsored run at the White House, but it's not a total goof in her eyes. "Colbert's [campaign] differs from others such as [late comedian and six-time presidential hopeful] Pat Paulsen's because he has a regular TV program of his own and because he actually tried to officially register as a candidate in a state," Hoff said. "This [made] him potentially a more 'real' candidate in terms of vote-getting than the others."
While the campaign shtick made for good TV, some Democrats might have gotten uncomfortable flashbacks to the 2000 election, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was blamed for siphoning off enough of the vote in Florida that it may have helped George W. Bush defeat Vice President Al Gore. Politico.com chief political columnist Roger Simon said Colbert could have become a legitimate concern.
"If he had gotten on the ballot on the Republican side, where things are really tight, people would have said, 'This guy can really screw things up,' " Simon said. "He would have had three tiers of voters: an admittedly small tier of people who think he should be president, those who want to cast a vote for 'none of the above' and try to blow the process up. ... They think it's a joke, so they vote for the guy who is consciously joking — that's a bigger tier. And then there are the people who don't think it's a joke."
Had Colbert gotten on the ballot as either a Republican or a Democrat, Simon said the three tiers could have made a real impact. "I don't know why he was limiting himself to South Carolina," he added. "He could have been on the ballot in New Hampshire, where it's a lot easier and there are 80 people on the ballot." If nothing else, Simon said Colbert would have "sucked up a lot of the oxygen," luring dozens of camera crews and reporters to his events, which likely would have been very well-attended. "In a heated campaign where events are held simultaneously, there are reporters who would not have attended some of the other candidates' events to cover Colbert. Hell, I would have gone because there should be one candidate who is intentionally funny given how many are unintentionally funny."
Colbert's spokesperson did not return calls or e-mails for a response as to what the comedian's next move might be. But given the (faux) bitterness he expressed on his show Thursday night following his Democratic rejection, it seems unlikely that his blink-and-you-missed-it campaign will rise again — especially since Hollywood writers voted to go on strike beginning next week and the "Colbert Report" will likely be off the air for an undetermined amount of time.
Then again, that would leave Colbert more time to campaign.