The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidelined by Democrats, Larry Lessig considers running against them

Five Democratic candidates for president are officially invited to tomorrow's CNN-sponsored debate in Las Vegas. Over the weekend, some of the network's reporters revealed cheeky plans to expand the debate, if needed: A clean, bubble-wrapped podium reserved for Vice President Joe Biden, should he decide to enter the race even one minute before the faceoff.

If Biden doesn't run, the podium will go unused. That may be the greatest indignity yet visited upon Larry Lessig, the Harvard academic and anti-corruption scholar who announced a crowd-funded presidential bid last month. As of now, he's running. Biden isn't.

"If they invited me today, it would be like that classic nightmare where you have an exam but haven’t prepared for it," Lessig said in an interview this morning. "I haven’t spent any time in debate prep. Now, would I go? Of course I would."

Lessig, who made a dramatic entry into politics last year with "the super PAC to end super PACs," has raised $1.2 million since he asked supporters to crowdfund his campaign. Most of that came in before the announcement, when Lessig said he'd run as "the first referendum candidate for president" if people put $1 million behind him.

"Since then, we've shifted gears toward building a campaign," said Lessig. "Then we hit this wall of the Democratic Party not acknowledging us. It became an even more difficult challenge once people started to hear we might not be included in the debate."

The rules for inclusion tomorrow night amount to a Catch-22 for Lessig. To be allowed onstage, a candidate needs to score at or above 1 percent in polls co-sponsored by TV networks. But most network polls simply don't ask voters about Lessig. The most recent NBC/WSJ and CNN polls both asked voters if they'd support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, former Virginia senator Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. Both polls also asked voters if they'd back Biden, who is not yet (and may never be) a candidate.

Neither tossed in Lessig's name. A CBS News poll, which did ask about Lessig, found no measurable support, but it found the same for Chafee, who will be on CNN's stage. And there have been other repercussions: Lessig found himself unable to speak to this week's No Labels issues conference in New Hampshire, told that the organizers were using CNN's rules to determine who got on stage. The rules that kept out fringe candidates -- and there are plenty in New Hampshire, at least one of them wearing a boot on his head -- were keeping out someone who raised twice as much start-up cash as 2012 GOP runner-up Rick Santorum had raised for his 2016 bid.

"The rules are inclusive of politicians, and they’d be inclusive of any billionaire who wants to run, but they’re not inclusive of a viable campaign that has not been on national stage," said Lessig.

Lessig once sardonically praised Donald Trump for his "progressive" campaign finance positions. In the days since CNN made clear that he would not be invited to Las Vegas, he'd found another area of agreement with Trump.

"Trump said he would stay in the party, and refuse to run as an independent, as long as the Republicans treated him fairly," said Lessig. "I’m beginning to have a sense of what he was talking about. If the party won’t allow me to run as a Democrat, that creates a lot of pressure to think about a different way of running that would allow me to make this case to the American people. I’ve received as lot of advice and suggestions from people as to how to spread this message. When I first got into this, I frankly didn’t expect that this would be an issue, but it's something I increasingly have to think about."