It’s an old political axiom: To win the game, know the rules.
Mitt Romney secured the 2012 Republican presidential nomination not only because he had more money and better organization than his rivals, but because his campaign had a superior understanding of how the race would be won—beginning with the fundamental task of qualifying for the ballot in every voting jurisdiction. It sounds simple, but ballot access traditionally represents one of the greatest obstacles—logistically, financially, and organizationally—facing a presidential campaign.
In an unprecedented effort aimed at leveling the playing field for candidates and erasing the advantages held by better-funded campaigns, the Republican National Lawyers Association has spent the last nine months building a comprehensive database of ballot-access guidelines for the 2016 nominating season—and distributing the findings, free of charge, to each of the GOP presidential campaigns.
The report, called the Ballot Access Initiative, is an invaluable cheat sheet for campaigns, providing them all the information necessary to compete in each of the 56 voting jurisdictions: deadlines, filing fees, signature thresholds, and other fine-print language that has thwarted past campaigns. Whereas ballot access has long imposed a winnowing effect on primary fields, the Republican candidates in 2016 will be equipped with an extraordinary resource that has potential to extend the life of their campaigns.
More than 300 pages if printed out, state-by-state, and capped with a meticulous, color-coded summary spreadsheet, the initiative represents the most sweeping ballot-access project in GOP history, party officials said.
The report was disseminated on a rolling basis over the last three months to each of the GOP campaigns, and has now been distributed in its entirety (save for some forthcoming updates to reflect rule changes being considered in a handful of states). To put a bow on the project, the RNLA, an organization of 5,000 practicing attorneys nationwide, invited the counsels from each of the presidential campaigns to New York City last month for a briefing on the project. (The only exception was Jim Gilmore, which RNLA organizers attributed to his late entrance into the race.)
Ultimately, 12 of the 16 invited campaigns sent a representative—in most cases, the general counsel—to the RNLA summit at the New York Marriott Downtown. There, they got confirmation of something that seemed too good to be true: An outside organization was providing them a road map to accomplish one of the most daunting tasks in presidential politics, and doing so free of charge.
“We’re trying to establish ourselves as a resource for Republicans to spend their hard-earned money on substantive issues, versus getting on the primary ballots,” said RNLA executive director Michael Thielen, who served as liaison between his organization and the campaigns, and helped brief them in New York.
“The campaigns were ecstatic,” Thielen added, “because we’re saving them money.”
How much money? According to Stefan Passantino, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who served as cochairman of the Ballot Access Initiative, the number reaches easily into the six figures.
It typically costs “tens of thousands of dollars in direct research costs to the campaign,” Passantino said. “When you combine that with the additional costs incurred in having to hire professional signature-gatherers because of an inability to fully allocate volunteer resources at the outset, the amount undoubtedly extends to six figures.”
Passantino knows firsthand the frustrations of ballot access. He was general counsel to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, and watched helplessly as the former House speaker failed to qualify for the primary ballot in Virginia due to an insufficient number of signatures. He wasn’t the only one. Several other candidates—including Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman—also didn’t meet the requirements. In fact, only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul were listed on the March 6 ballot in Virginia, a delegate-rich Super Tuesday state that voted at a time when the nomination was still very much up for grabs.
What happened in Virginia wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Santorum, who finished as the eventual 2012 runner-up to Romney, failed to qualify for the District of Columbia ballot, and also filed incomplete delegate slates in Ohio and Illinois, handicapping his delegate haul in those competitive Midwestern states. Huntsman, for his part, failed completely in Illinois and also didn’t make the ballot in Arizona, a damaging stumble because of the state’s large Mormon population and his campaign’s intention to play heavily in its Feb. 28 primary.
It’s no accident, then, that the Ballot Access Initiative was later conceived by a Gingrich veteran. But it wasn’t Passantino who came up with the idea; rather, it was Randy Evans, the RNLA’s chairman and a senior adviser to Gingrich’s campaign, along with Larry Levy, the RNLA’s president, who served as general counsel to Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 White House bid.
In December of 2014, after the midterm elections had concluded and with attention beginning to shift to the upcoming presidential campaign, Evans and Levy commissioned the project. They had the blessing of the RNLA board, as well as the Republican National Committee, with the understanding that the report would be completed by summer’s end and distributed to the campaigns for free.
Generosity for its own sake may seem rare in politics, but in this case, there’s no catch or caveat. Everyone involved with the project insists the goal is simply to level the playing field between candidates, and spare the campaigns much of the time, energy, and money expended in cycles past.
“We both had experience in representing presidential candidates and recognized how difficult and time-consuming it is to get on the ballot in every jurisdiction,” Levy said of himself and Evans.
Evans, recalling his experience with the Gingrich campaign, added: “I know how painful it was in Virginia when we couldn’t muster enough signatures to get on the ballot. It’s important for candidates to know what the rules are.”
But such benevolence, while benefiting the individual campaigns, could backfire for the party itself. With all 16 remaining campaigns now possessing a how-to guide for getting onto every ballot, it’s plausible that many second- and third-tier candidates qualify for contests they otherwise wouldn’t have, thus prolonging the primary season.
This would seemingly counteract the stated goal of the RNC, which has reduced the number of debates and compressed the primary calendar with the ultimate goal of shortening the nominating season and producing a nominee early. So why would the RNC green-light a project that could potentially achieve the opposite?
An RNC spokesperson stressed that the national party played no role in the RNLA effort. But officials in both groups confirmed that the RNC was consulted at the outset of the project, and said there was coordination throughout. This was attributed in large part to the overlap between the two entities, starting at the top: Evans, the RNLA president, also serves as the RNC committeeman from Georgia; and RNC general counsel John Ryder is vice chairman of the RNLA’s executive committee.
Simply put, RNLA officials said they share the RNC’s goal of choosing a nominee quickly—as long as the candidates are allowed to compete under equal circumstances.
“Is this the area where we want the race to be winnowed—not getting onto the ballot in the states?” Thielen said. “I think we would rather have the candidates focus on the substance issues rather than the process issues, and rather have the winnowing happen through substantive debate, not whether you can get on the ballot in a state.”
Passantino added: “We’re not trying to get everybody through to the convention. Our goal is to make sure their resources are available for other things. I think it’s a noble effort to allow the candidates to complete on their ideas.”
Of course, the Ballot Access Initiative is no guarantee of universal success. Having all of the information is only half the battle; campaigns must now execute on the playbook handed to them by the RNLA. And, oddly, several of the campaigns didn’t bother sending anyone to New York for last month’s briefing. Absent were representatives from the campaigns of Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry (who has since dropped out of the race), and Donald Trump (though RNLA officials emphasized that Trump’s campaign counsel, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Donald McGahn, has worked closely with them, and that he missed the summit due to a scheduling conflict).
It’s especially notable that Santorum, whose ballot struggles hindered his anti-Romney surge in 2012, did not send anyone to the RNLA summit. Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon said the campaign “is well aware of the challenges we faced four years ago” and now has “a campaign counsel as well as several staff members dedicated to ballot access.”
Their job will be easier in some places than others. In South Dakota, for example, party officials hadn’t even settled on rules for the state’s primary when the RNLA contacted them for its Ballot Access Initiative. That state’s rules are perhaps the simplest of any; there are no fees or signatures required. All that’s needed for a candidate to appear on the June 7 ballot is a declaration of candidacy, recognized by the state party, filed by March 29.
But in most jurisdictions the hurdles are much higher.
In Indiana, for example, Republicans must declare their candidacy between Jan. 6 and Jan. 26. Then, after filing their declaration, they must collect 4,500 signatures on a petition for their candidacy—including at least 500 signatures from each of the state’s nine congressional districts. (Campaigns will typically collect at least 10 percent more signatures than are required, to guard against legal challenges.) Those petitions must be submitted by Feb. 5. If the signatures are certified and approved, only then does a candidate’s name appear on the state’s May 3 primary ballot.
Virginia, the foil to Gingrich, Santorum, and several others—and long recognized as the toughest ballot-access jurisdiction in the nation—has actually dialed back its qualification guidelines after the 2012 debacle.
In that cycle, candidates needed to collect 10,000 signatures statewide, with at least 400 coming from each of its 11 congressional districts. This time around, the numbers have been halved: 5,000 signatures are needed, with at least 200 from each district, due Dec. 10. There is, however, an unforeseen complication: Due to a redistricting lawsuit, Virginia’s congressional boundaries will soon be redrawn. This development has forced campaigns into a holding pattern, wary of wasting resources collecting hundreds of signatures in adjacent districts that could soon be combined into one.
A panel of federal judges will determine Virginia’s new congressional map, perhaps as soon as next month. At that point, campaigns will begin anew collecting signatures in the freshly-drawn districts. And, just to be safe, the RNLA will blast out an updated version of its Ballot Access Initiative, making sure the campaigns know exactly what to do.