Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig announced on Monday night an unusual experiment for the 2016 election. The longtime campaign finance reformer is exploring a run for president on the singular principle of getting big money out of politics—and that if he wins the White House, he would resign when he achieved that goal. It's a pitch that may not gain much traction with voters nationally, but that hardly matters when his real target audience is the front page of Reddit.
In one video, Lessig charts an unlikely path forward as a “referendum president.” Lessig plans to jump in the race if he can raise $1 million from small donors by Labor Day and if he feels the leading candidates in the primary do not champion citizen-funded elections as their top priority. In his vision, a candidate (Lessig) would run for president endorsing a single legislative proposal, the Citizen Equality Act of 2017, would serve as long as it takes to ensure its passage, and then would step down for the elected vice president to take his place.
Another clip posted Monday describes the three tenets of the Citizens Equality Act of 2017: Protect the freedom to vote by making Election Day a national holiday, ensure equal representation in Congress by ending gerrymandering, and mandate citizen-funded elections through only small dollar vouchers or matching funds.
There are several theories about why candidates with no real chance of winning the presidency even bother running. But Lessig's motivation, at least, is clear. He knows he's no Bernie Sanders, going so far to admit in his announcement that he’s ill-suited for the role. “[N]o doubt there should be someone better than me,” he says. “I have tried to recruit them, and if someone better known credibly commits to making this run, I would happily step aside. This campaign is not about a person, it’s about a principle, an American principle we must reclaim.”
Lessig does have appeal to a certain type of voter. His base—if you can call it that—is of the “liberaltarian variety, equal parts Reddit and 'Portlandia',” Simon van Zuylen-Wood wrote in the New Republic in 2014.
Will the Reddit vote pay off for Lessig’s cause? The evidence is mixed. His last grassroots effort, Mayday PAC, backed 2014 midterm candidates who pledged not to take big donations. After sinking $10 million into the election, Mayday won only two of its eight races. Two years before, Lessig chose not to endorse his one-time University of Chicago colleague Barack Obama for reelection, instead backing small-donor candidate Buddy Roemer.
But Lessig has already succeeded in one respect. Campaign finance reform, a far more worthy issue for debate than taxing pimps and prostitutes, has been paid very little attention this election cycle. Now, people will be talking about it—at least for a day, somewhere on Reddit.