Can a Zombie-Powered Presidential Candidate Go Legit?

This is Vermin Supreme, and this is how he campaigns for president. Of the United States. Of America.

BOSTON, MA --Perrenial political candidate Vermin Supreme speaks through a megaphone at a Zombie March on May 18, 2014. 
National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
May 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

BO­STON — The serenity of a per­fect spring af­ter­noon was in­ter­rup­ted Sat­urday when hun­dreds of bloody zom­bies in­vaded Bo­ston Com­mon, storm­ing across couples’ pic­nic blankets, halt­ing busk­ers’ gui­tar strum­ming, and ter­ri­fy­ing par­ents in town to vis­it their sons and daugh­ters at col­lege.

Provid­ing the apo­ca­lyptic soundtrack for Bo­ston’s an­nu­al Zom­bie March — aton­al feed­back broad­cast through his mega­phone — is a bearded man wear­ing a boot on his head, a man who re­sembles some kind of de­men­ted Santa Claus. This is Ver­min Su­preme, and this is how he cam­paigns for pres­id­ent. Of the United States. Of Amer­ica.

Su­preme, an ec­cent­ric per­form­ance artist and per­en­ni­al polit­ic­al can­did­ate, had a break­through year dur­ing his latest bid for the pres­id­ency in 2012 (former New York gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” Mc­Mil­lan was his run­ning mate). Su­preme fin­ished third in the New Hamp­shire Demo­crat­ic primary with 833 votes, and could be seen taunt­ing Newt Gin­grich and Rick San­tor­um out­side their events.

For the show, he was pro­filed in ma­jor pub­lic­a­tions the world over, im­mor­tal­ized in mer­chand­ise and In­ter­net memes, be­came the sub­ject of a new doc­u­ment­ary and up­com­ing series of video games, and has star­ted giv­ing speeches at col­leges on the his­tory of polit­ic­al satire. Even High­lights magazine, the whole­some staple of pe­di­at­ric wait­ing rooms, fea­tured a car­toon wiz­ard hold­ing a tooth­brush that seems de­riv­at­ive of Su­preme.

So how could Su­preme (that is his real, leg­al name), who has been mock­ing the polit­ic­al sys­tem by mock­ing him­self for years in in­creas­ingly over-the-top stunts, pos­sibly one-up his 2012 suc­cess? For 2016, he wants to do something even cra­zi­er and more brazen than any­thing he’s at­temp­ted be­fore: Go le­git — at least sort of.

Su­preme is run­ning for pres­id­ent again in 2016, but this time he hopes to earn enough sup­port to se­cure po­ten­tially hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in match­ing funds from the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, cour­tesy of tax­pay­ers who choose to chip in $3 on their an­nu­al tax re­turn.

To meet the fed­er­al re­quire­ments for the money, Su­preme will need to raise at least $5,000 in small dona­tions from at least 20 states, for a min­im­um total of $100,000. If he suc­ceeds, the gov­ern­ment will match every con­tri­bu­tion un­der $250 dol­lar-for-dol­lar, mean­ing the man whose plat­form in­cludes a zom­bie-based en­ergy plan would sud­denly have more than $200,000 to spend on psy­che­del­ic ads like this. (He would not qual­i­fy for match­ing funds in a gen­er­al elec­tion).

For 2016, he wants to do something even cra­zi­er and more brazen than any­thing he’s at­temp­ted be­fore: Go le­git — at least sort of.

“It would be a real mark of le­git­im­acy,” he tells me.

It would also be a tall or­der for someone whose pre­vi­ous pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns have been nar­rowly fo­cused on New Hamp­shire, and who has nev­er raised more than a few thou­sands dol­lars, mean­ing he didn’t even have to file a re­port with the FEC.

But Su­preme is con­fid­ent he can turn his In­ter­net fame and grow­ing grass­roots fan­dom in­to something re­sem­bling a na­tion­al cam­paign. He re­cently em­barked on a 20-city tour to build sup­port, where he found will­ing vo­lun­teers in far-flung loc­ales. He’s already lined up po­ten­tial state dir­ect­ors in Ok­lahoma, North Car­o­lina, Illinois, In­di­ana, Ten­ness­ee, New Hamp­shire, and his home state of Mas­sachu­setts, and says there are many more to come soon.

He real­izes how this might look to some and wor­ries that, if he is suc­cess­ful, he’ll be used by op­pon­ents of pub­lic cam­paign fin­an­cing as Ex­hib­it A for why the sys­tem should be shut down. “That’s something I have to think about,” he says.

Non­ethe­less, at least among the 200 or 300 people who chose to spend a week­end af­ter­noon ram­pa­ging through down­town Bo­ston dressed as zom­bies, Su­preme found plenty of sup­port. As we marched west from South Sta­tion, Su­preme could hardly walk more than a dozen yards without someone — wheth­er a zom­bie or in­no­cent bystand­er — stop­ping him to take a pic­ture, shake his hand, or of­fer a word of en­cour­age­ment.

These ad­mirers are al­most ex­clus­ively young — many not even old enough to vote yet — and thor­oughly steeped in on­line cul­ture. “I re­cog­nize you from the In­ter­net!” one eager col­lege stu­dent ex­claimed in a typ­ic­al in­ter­ac­tion.

Al Gore may have in­ven­ted the In­ter­net, Howard Dean may have pi­on­eered its use in polit­ic­al cam­paigns, and Barack Obama may have per­fec­ted it, but Ver­min Su­preme is the only pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate whose en­tire pub­lic ex­ist­ence was born, lives, and could die thanks to the World Wide Web. Its den­iz­ens are his base, and without them he would just be a crazy guy with a boot on his head. “So go the geeks, so go the coun­try,” he said.

Su­preme can pin­point the ex­act mo­ment when he went from “man to meme,” as he likes to say. It was Decem­ber 19, 2011, at the Less­er Known Pres­id­en­tial Can­did­ates For­um hos­ted by the New Hamp­shire In­sti­tute of Polit­ics at St. An­selm Col­lege. With the famed boot atop his head and a ludicrous num­ber of ties around his neck, Su­preme sprinkled glit­ter on so­cial con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist Ran­dall Terry, who was also run­ning as a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, ex­plain­ing that Je­sus told him to turn Terry gay.

Videos of the glit­ter bomb­ing garnered mil­lions of views, and Su­preme quickly be­came a fa­vor­ite on In­ter­net for­ums. “This man has my vote. Ver­min Su­preme 2012!” read one post that made it to the front page of Red­dit.

“If there aren’t more pic­tures of me on the In­ter­net, I’ll cease to ex­ist.”

But Su­preme gives spe­cial cred­it to the Bron­ies, a on­line sub­cul­ture of adult men who are fans of “My Little Pony,” for sus­tain­ing his In­ter­net fame. A key plank in Su­preme’s plat­form is to give every Amer­ic­an a pony, so the Bron­ies were a nat­ur­al source of sup­port.

Did Su­preme set out to achieve In­ter­net great­ness? “Hell no,” he said with a laugh. “If I had seen it com­ing, I would have got­ten my merch line up and run­ning soon­er.” Then, he and the horde of zom­bies who were fol­low­ing him like a de­mon­ic Pied Piper marched past the boutiques in the up­scale Co­pley Place shop­ping mall.

It’s dif­fi­cult to gauge how earn­est his sup­port is here. Most ad­mirers just seem de­lighted to see this weird per­son from the In­ter­net “IRL” — In Real Life, in on­line par­lance. And Su­preme him­self has his tongue planted firmly in cheek. As a fa­vor­ite slo­gan of his goes, “A vote for Ver­min Su­preme is a vote com­pletely wasted.”

But he does seem to tap in­to a grow­ing dis­con­tent among young people with Pres­id­ent Obama, main­stream polit­ic­al parties, and polit­ics in gen­er­al. I asked a zom­bie high school seni­or from the area if he would really cast the very first pres­id­en­tial bal­lot of his life for Su­preme, in­stead of a more ser­i­ous politi­cian. “Why not? They’re all jokes any­way,” he replied.

And Su­preme, the anti­es­tab­lish­ment­ari­an prank­ster, is happy to be an avatar of mil­len­ni­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion.

But in or­der to carry out his big plans for 2016, he’ll have to con­tin­ue to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of the fickle Red­dit user. It’s why he rode the train an hour from his home to par­ti­cip­ate in the zom­bie march.

“Meme main­ten­ance,” he ex­plained. “If there aren’t more pic­tures of me on the In­ter­net, I’ll cease to ex­ist.”

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