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What Howard Stern for governor can teach us about Donald Trump

Radio personality Howard Stern, right, and Beth Stern attend a special screening of  "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" at the United Artists East Hampton Cinema 6 on Friday, July 24, 2015, in East Hampton, NY. (Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP)

Once upon a time, an ostentatious, outspoken, oft-offensive New York celebrity threatened to get into politics. Few believed him, even after he announced his candidacy.

But they eventually took him seriously, especially since this celebrity's potential third-party run appeared to threaten the outcome of the race. Some of the candidates distanced themselves from him while others played nice, because of that possibility.

The similarities between Howard Stern's 1994 run for New York governor and Donald Trump's 2016 presidential run don't end there. Here's the story of that one time Howard Stern ran for governor -- and what we can learn from the whole experience about our latest New York celebrity shaking up politics. 

Chapter One: The surprise candidacy

In 1994, incumbent Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) was up for reelection, and his approval ratings were in the 40s. Republicans smelled blood.

They nominated a then-little-known state senator named George Pataki (who went onto win the race, serve three terms, and is now running for president).

For reasons that are still debatable, Stern decided this was his moment, too. Stern announced on his radio show he was running for governor. Stern had talked with the 600-700-member-strong New York Libertarian Party and would be running as a libertarian.

His platform: reinstating the death penalty, forcing construction workers to work at night and staggering highway tolls to alleviate traffic jams. Once those things were done, he'd resign and let his lieutenant governor -- a former former state legislator named Stan Dworkin -- take over.

"It doesn't matter if you find me offensive," Stern said in his March 22 announcement. "I'll get out of office before I can really screw anything up."

Chapter Two: Stern-mentum & Stern haters 

Stern's foray into politics came at the height of his career. His nationally syndicated radio show had a peak of 20 million listeners, and Stern had conveniently just released his best-selling book, "Private Parts," with book-signing lines across the country lasting as long as seven hours. (See: Candidates running for office while hocking books is nothing new.)

As such, the New York City political and media class treated the pop culture icon's candidacy with disdain. Stern was simply not a viable candidate.

"He has gone out of his way to offend blacks, women, Catholics, gay men and scores of others, while maintaining a prurient fascination with lesbians," The New York Times' Todd Purdum wrote in an article titled "Gov. Howard Stern? Some fail to see the humor."

But dislike him as they may, everyone concerned with the outcome of the election had reason to worry that Stern's candidacy could alter the outcome. Stern claimed polls showed him with 15-20 percent of the vote, although CNN reported at the time he had less than 10 percent.

More from The New York Times' Purdum, who wrote: "While no one is sure whether it is all a 'goof,' as Mr. Stern might put it, the talk is serious."

That's because election-watchers figured if Stern could rally enough support from his loyal fans, he could do one of two things:

1) Take away votes from Republican candidate Pataki and hand the race to Cuomo. The week Stern announced his candidacy, Time Magazine called Cuomo "the winner of the week," predicting Stern could split the pro-death penalty vote among Republicans.

2) Earn enough votes (50,000) to qualify the Libertarian Party to be on New York state ballots for the next four years. This was the likeliest outcome of a Stern candidacy, and a lasting one that could hurt the GOP.

Chapter Three: The surprise end of a candidacy

Here's where Stern's and Trump's paths diverge. Like Trump, Stern had to disclose his personal finances if he wanted to run. And like Trump, many people doubted whether the celebrity would open himself up to such scrutiny.

Unlike Trump, Stern proved the doubters right. He dropped out of the race in August because he refused to file a personal finance disclosures after unsuccessfully asking a judge to waive the requirement for him.

[So, Donald Trump looks like he's serious about running for president]

On his radio show, Stern said: "I spend 25 hours a week telling you all the most intimate details of my life. One fact I've never revealed is how much I make and how much money I have. ... It's none of your business."

Epilogue: What we can learn from it all

So the political threat that was Howard Stern never quite panned out. But even as they laughed at him, it seems the media and political class treated Stern's third-party threat seriously.

Today, it's taken us about two months into Donald Trump's presidential campaign to start taking him seriously -- just as he's leading in several polls in key states. "Never say 'never' in politics," wrote The Fix boss Chris Cillizza in an Aug. 4 piece about why he was wrong to brush off Trump's candidacy.

No, Trump won't likely be the Republican nominee, and we're 99.9 percent sure he won't ever be president.

[Can Donald Trump win? Here are 5 things he'd need to do -- but likely won't]

But Trump has repeatedly threatened to run as an independent if he doesn't get the Republican nomination. And this is truly where reality could most echo Stern's run for governor.

July 16 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that if Trump did run as a third party, likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the general election (46 percent) over former Florida governor Jeb Bush (30 percent), with Trump getting 20 percent. Head-to-head polls between Clinton and Bush are much closer with no Trump.

So, looking back on another New York celebrity's brief run for public office, we would be wise to pluck a lesson from history and take Trump's campaign very seriously -- not necessarily for his ideas or ability to actually win, but for the potential to continue turning the 2016 race on its head.

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