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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

Colbert Explores Presidential Run

photo of Sarah Mimms
January 13, 2012

Stephen Colbert has decided to make his "Colbert Nation" a little more literal, launching an exploratory committee to run for President of the United States—in South Carolina, that is.

Colbert made the official announcement on his show on Thursday night. “For over a day now, the people of South Carolina have been crying out for someone who can restore our nation’s former greatness to its current perfect,” he said. “Well, America, that someone is now. … With your help, and possibly the help of some sort of outside group that I am not coordinating with, we can explore taking this country back. … Thank you. God bless you all! And God bless Citizens United!”

In fact, the Citizens United ruling, which established so-called “super PACs,” solves many of the problems that plagued Colbert’s attempt to run for president on the South Carolina Democratic primary ballot in 2008. Colbert’s lack of funding, which ultimately forced him to shutter the campaign, is no longer an issue; he now has his super PAC that will be able to run ads for him and bolster his campaign. And Doritos, which ran into some tricky legal questions for sponsoring his 2008 bid, can now legally sponsor his super PAC.


There are just two problems, and they’re big ones: the state’s ballot deadline is long past and South Carolina doesn’t allow write-in candidacies for president or vice president.

That doesn’t mean that Colbert can’t continue exploring a bid, even if it never comes to fruition. And that means he can raise as much money as he wants both within the super PAC, where he can receive unlimited donations from unnamed donors, and through his exploratory committee, which can take in donations under the $2,500 limit—from unnamed donors, whom Colbert would only have to identify should his exploratory committee become an actual campaign. Which, again, isn’t possible in South Carolina this year.

In continuing his satire of Citizens United and campaign finance law, Colbert’s campaign is likely to be the embodiment of the complaints about super PAC ads that plagued the campaign trail this cycle: that they are counter-factual, unaccountable and endless.

Colbert’s PAC, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, has already run ads in the presidential campaign, putting up a spot in Iowa urging Ames straw poll voters to vote for fake candidate Rick Parry. He’s also run ads on his own show, including one that featured presidential candidate Buddy Roemer and a unicorn.

It’s unclear how much money Colbert has in the super PAC, though former FEC chairman Trevor Potter characterized it as a “shocking” amount on the show Thursday night. Regardless, ad time in South Carolina is relatively inexpensive and the possibility of Colbert ads flooding the airwaves seems likely.

Colbert may have already run afoul of election laws, or has at least pushed them to a new level. For starters, Colbert—not a staffer, former colleague, or supporter—started his own super PAC, which could make it difficult for him to argue that he isn’t coordinating with it. Then, on Thursday night’s show, Colbert signed over his super PAC—Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow—to Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who is not only a friend and former colleague, but also an executive producer on his program. Stewart and Colbert alluded to the fact that the PAC’s staff will stay onboard, despite the change in leadership. Many of them are also staffers at The Colbert Report. Potter argued the move was perfectly legal as long as the staffers “have no knowledge of Stephen’s plan.” It’s certainly true that other super PACs backing candidates in this election cycle are run by former staffers that candidate, but they are former staffers. Stewart and the Report staffers not only interact with Colbert on a near-daily basis, but they also stand to financially gain by Colbert’s success, if not in actually running for president, then in garnering attention and thus ratings.

Whatever happens in South Carolina over the next week, it promises to be interesting.

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