Obstacles to Success
Nevertheless, Lessig’s candidacy struggled to overcome serious roadblocks. Voters were hesitant to embrace the idea of a “referendum president.” By mid-October, when it became obvious that a referendum presidency was a nonstarter, Lessig ditched his initial plan and declared that he would stay in office for a full term if elected. He proceeded to outline policy positions on 15 issues, ranging from the more common (“The Economy,” “Immigration Reform”) to the more idiosyncratic (“The Internet,” “The Emerging Surveillance Society”). He linked all his issue essays back to the underlying need for electoral reform.
Despite fighting fervently to get his message across, Lessig’s campaign did not manage to gain traction. As he put it, he remained “a completely unknown candidate with a funny name and funny glasses, and the only picture of me was with a bowtie.”
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However, the failure of Lessig’s campaign was not a product of poor performance or an unpopular message. After all, more than 90 percent of Americans want to curb the power of money in politics. Although his referendum presidency idea might have dissuaded some voters, he emphasized that his campaign faced a much bigger obstacle: the Democratic National Committee.
Indeed, the DNC seemed to systematically exclude Lessig from the race. Unlike every other candidate, Lessig did not receive a welcome letter from the DNC after announcing his candidacy. In a piece he wrote for Politico, he claimed that party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz scheduled a call with him, cancelled, and neglected to schedule another one. In the process of writing this article, we reached out to DNC spokespeople, who declined to comment.
Many pollsters, apparently mimicking the stance of the DNC, failed to list Lessig as one of the Democratic candidates. Instead, their polls included undeclared politicians like Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo, as well as poorly performing hopefuls like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. Something was amiss.
To get onto the debate stage, candidates had to receive at least one percent in three or more polls conducted over the six weeks prior to the debate. Since he was not even included in most polls, Lessig failed to qualify for the first debate in October. His supporters vehemently protested the professor’s absence, demonstrating outside CNN’s office in New York and appealing to Wasserman Schultz to “Let Lessig Debate.” The Bloomberg Editorial Board joined the call, and a MoveOn.org petition attracted several thousand signatures. Given that Webb and Chafee were both on the stage, Lessig’s lack of inclusion seemed especially unjust.
Following the first debate, the campaign ramped up its outreach efforts. Even though Lessig still was omitted from most polls, by late October he managed to gain one percent of the vote in the four polls that did include him—enough to qualify him for the second debate.
As he began to prepare for the event, the campaign received troubling news: the DNC had changed the rules. Rather than requiring three qualifying polls over the six weeks preceding the debate, candidates now had to qualify in three polls at least six weeks prior to the event. As Steve Jarding implied in a Huffington Post op-ed, the sudden rule change was seemingly handcrafted to exclude Lessig from the debate. No other candidate was affected by the DNC’s decision.
Facing a party leadership that seemed intent on barring him from a national audience, Lessig ended his campaign. As he recounted, “The strategy of the campaign was a sprint from raising this money to getting to the polls necessary to get into the debates … and we achieved that. We got to the polls necessary to get into the debates. And then the goalposts were moved.”
He went on, “We just didn’t quite expect being successful wouldn’t mean actually succeeding.”