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Think 20 presidential candidates is a lot? Try 300-plus

A simple federal form is all it takes to be an ‘official’ candidate, but getting noticed is harder

The large field of Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 cycle led Fox Business Network, based on poll ratings, to decide that Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum would participate in their own debate, separately from the top seven candidates in the race. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)
The large field of Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 cycle led Fox Business Network, based on poll ratings, to decide that Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum would participate in their own debate, separately from the top seven candidates in the race. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)

More than 300 citizens since January have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president of the United States.

The full list features candidates from dozens of states, with multiple political affiliations.

Nevada libertarian Dan “Taxation is Theft” Behrman, who reported raising $736.82 since he launched his campaign on Jan. 30, can be seen on his campaign website wearing a black suit and a large yellow top hat with a sticker reading “TAXATION IS THEFT.” The same slogan appears on his yellow tie and handkerchief.

But don’t expect to see him on your favorite cable news channel. In covering the 2020 race, the public may have heard there are 19 Democrats running, which would grow to 20 with Vice President Joe Biden expected to enter the race Thursday. In the GOP, the only candidate said to be running besides President Donald Trump is former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

That’s because getting listed on the FEC’s website only requires completing a statement of candidacy form. The form does not, however, earn candidates a mention on a news site or in a popularity poll. And it has nothing to do with appearing in debates or actually getting on a ballot.

Also watch: Eric Swalwell is running for president, here are some congressional basics

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So, what separates the wheat from the chaff?

Money is a big factor. A candidate’s ability to raise enough to show a core of support and fund a competitive campaign is an early test of viability used by both news organizations and pollsters, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Monmouth released a national poll Tuesday tracking the popularity of Biden and 19 Democrats who have officially entered the race, three who are publicly contemplating a run, and four who announced they won’t be running.

Murray includes candidates in polls who’ve officially declared their candidacies and currently hold, or have previously held, a federal office or governorship. 

Those who haven’t held office but are officially running, or are publicly contemplating a candidacy, must show “fundraising capability” to be included. Raising a large amount is “a key indicator” of how serious a candidate is about their campaign, Murray said.

News organizations choose to cover candidates who provide news value, which can include a candidate’s novelty or a controversy surrounding them. But media tend to concentrate on candidates who are popular in the polls and have the ability to fundraise, said Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

“Media attention is what could keep a candidacy alive. And if you don’t get it, you really can’t go forward,” Beck said.

News media and pollsters share a symbiotic relationship.

“There is a cycle that feeds on itself. The candidates who get media attention do well in the early polls, and because they’re doing well in the early polls, they’re seen as more viable candidates and get more media attention,” Murray said.

Once a candidate is deemed a front-runner in polls and receives ample media attention, the next step toward the nomination is to appear on state ballots.

The 50 states have different rules dictating how a candidate can appear on the primary ballot. Most require individuals to secure petition signatures, but the number varies widely. Caucus states, such as Iowa, play by their own rules and put no restrictions on a candidate’s ability to participate in the primary election.

Debates come with their own rules, often set by the network airing them, usually in cooperation with the political parties.

In the 2016 election, the large field of Republicans in the presidential primaries led to candidates being split into prime-time and non-prime-time debates based on their standing in polls. 

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 6: Charleston area Republicans watch the Republican primary debate at the Mount Pleasant Cinebarre theater during the Charleston County GOP debate watch party in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Charleston area Republicans watch the Aug. 6, 2015 Republican primary debate at the Mount Pleasant Cinebarre theater. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This year, the Democratic National Convention has outlined two paths to qualify for the first two debates based on fundraising and polling.

According to the rules, a candidate must garner 1 percent support or more in three national polls or in polls in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and/or Nevada. Alternatively, a candidate would have to receive donations from at least 65,000 people, and amass a minimum of 200 unique donors in at least 20 states.

The stage is capped for 20 candidates who will be “selected using a methodology that gives primacy to candidates meeting both thresholds, followed by the highest polling average, followed by the most unique donors,” the DNC said.

“If you aren’t in any of the debates early on, you simply are going to be an invisible candidate. However good you may be, you’re just not going to get attention,” Beck said.

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