U.S. independant presidential candidate Ross Perot
Paul J. Richards  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Ross Perot, seen here with his wife Margot at a 1992 campaign rally, won 19 percent of the popular vote that year, but no electoral votes.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/17/2007 12:03:05 PM ET 2007-05-17T16:03:05

Dear Consultant:  I am a wealthy, former business owner who is now the chief executive of a large governmental organization. If I wanted to run for president of the United States as an independent, what do I need to do?

Dear Sir: The short answer is you need to gather enough signatures on petitions to get on the ballot in all 50 states. And spend a LOT of money on advertising.

Michael Bloomberg has that kind of money.

But will the wealthy New York City mayor follow Ross Perot’s third-party blueprint of 1992 and 1996? Or Ralph Nader’s of 2000 and 2004?

One Republican would like Bloomberg to do just that.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said Sunday, “A credible third ticket, third party, would be good for the system” because it would rebuke “both parties that have been hijacked by the extremes… Mayor Bloomberg is the kind of individual who should seriously think about this.”

Bloomberg, for now, has disclaimed any interest in the White House.

That may be in part because of the obstacles to mounting an independent bid. But while they are large, they are not insurmountable.

Ballot access experts say a candidate would need to confront these questions:

Q. Why does an independent need a bevy of ballot access experts, signature gatherers, and lawyers?
A. Each state has different requirements for a contender to get his name on the ballot. In California, for example an independent would need nearly 160,000 signatures, while in Minnesota he’d need only 2,000.

“You are not a candidate until you are on the ballot,” said ballot access expert Laureen Oliver, an advisor to Texas independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman last year and New York Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano in 2002.

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“An independent candidate can’t get on the ballot until he has organizational structure. That’s the number one reason that candidates who run as independents lose,” said Oliver. “It’s not money; it’s structure…. You need to do 50 races simultaneously.”

And if that organizational hurdle is not enough, keep in mind if an independent appears to be a threat to either of the major-party candidates, they might file lawsuits to try to keep him or her off state ballots.

In 2004, the Democrats, fearful of Nader, fought court battles to boot him off the ballot in Iowa and other states.

Too late to jump in the race?
Q. Is it getting late for an independent to begin mounting a bid for the White House?
A. Yes, said Oliver.  Even though some states’ petition deadlines are not until next summer, she stressed the need for early action to gather signatures. “The earlier you start, the better chance you have,” she said. “Organization comes before signatures.”

She added, ”If Bloomberg thinks he’d going to come out in September or December and do this, I’ll tell him point-blank, ‘you’re never going to make it.’”

Q. Is it necessary for a candidate to get on the ballot in ALL 50 states and the District of Columbia?
A. A candidate must win 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win the presidency. He would need to be on all or nearly all state ballots in order to have a reasonable chance to get 270.

The winner-take-all nature of the system makes it imperative to be a contender in as many states as possible. In 48 states the person with the statewide plurality (even if it isn't a majority) gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

1992 versus 2008
Q. Is it more difficult or less difficult for an independent to get on the ballot in all 50 states than it was in 1992 when Perot ran?
A. It’s easier now in six states, said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a leading source of ballot expertise. Since 1992, he said, several states have reduced the number of signatures needed to get in the ballot. It is more difficult in three states, he said: Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon.

Q. Are there any states which a candidate must form a political party in order to get on the ballot?
A. According to Winger, all states now have a procedure for an independent candidate to qualify without starting a new party in that state.

But, Oliver said, in New York it would be easiest for an independent to run on the ballot line of the Independence Party and in Florida to run as the candidate of the Reform Party, both of which already have ballot access.

Q. Are there lessons that a potential independent candidate can learn from Ross Perot’s experience in 1992?
A. If the candidate were Bloomberg, then he’d need to advertise early. “He needs to raise the awareness and introduce himself to rest of the country. I don’t think Bloomberg has anywhere near the same persona as Perot did in 1992,” said Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, who devised ad campaigns for Nader in 2000 and for Democrat Ned Lamont in last year’s Senate race in Connecticut.

“One of Perot’s masterstrokes was to use the access to the ballot as a mechanism for mobilizing people,” said Walter Stone, professor of political science at the University of California, Davis and co-author of “Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.”

“He held press conferences, brought the signatures to the state capitol, and made a big show of getting his name on the ballot in different states,” said Stone. Ballot access “wasn’t just a barrier, it was an opportunity to organize, to demonstrate support. That was a brilliant strategic move.”

Bottom line: What's it gonna cost me?
Q. How much would it cost to get on the ballot in all 50 states?
A. According to Winger, a candidate would need a total of about 700,000 signatures nationwide. “If the bulk of the work were done in 2007, when paid circulators don’t have much work so they charge less, it could be done for $2.5 million.”

Q. What about the cost of TV, radio, and other advertising?
A. Hillsman estimated that it would cost more than $150 million for an advertising effort.

Hillsman said he hadn’t talked to Bloomberg. But “I'm a fan of what the mayor has accomplished in New York and we would certainly talk to them if they wanted to discuss with us,” he said.  “The choice of a running mate would be key, and we like a lot of what Chuck Hagel has been saying about the war.”

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