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Lawrence Lessig Puts Up Ad Before Likely Being Left Off Debate Stage

5 minute read

Lawrence Lessig is running for President, but he says most voters won’t know that if the Democratic National Committee has its way.

The ultra-long shot candidate, who is running a one-issue campaign centered on enacting campaign finance reform, says he hasn’t been welcomed to the race like the other candidates.

He spoke to TIME about throwing his hat in the ring, why he probably won’t make the first Democratic debate next week and what’s behind his new TV ad.

So you made your fundraising goal – were you surprised? [Lessig said he would become a candidate if he could raise $1 million by Labor Day.]

No we weren’t surprised. We knew there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm to take up this issue.

How does it feel now to be an official candidate?

I’m not sure I feel official yet, because the Democratic Party won’t recognize me as an official candidate. With the candidates who are going to appear on the debate stage they sent out a press release welcoming them to the race… But we’ve had to fight even for the ability to be in the polls, which of course are the preconditions to being in the debate. It’s a struggle for an outsider who is not a billionaire.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of an outsider. [The DNC] might look at what’s going on with the outsiders in the Republican Party and think, Well it’s a good thing we don’t have those. And I think it’s not a problem they’ve had to think about before, so that leaves them to be conservative about it. The people inside the party who are aligned in the leading candidates aren’t eager to increase the competition. The perspective I’d be offering especially in those debates would be radically different than what anybody else is offering.

What is that perspective?

I would characterize it as I’m the only person on that stage who would be willing to say that we need to recognize all these promises that are being made by these candidates are just fantasy… And the only way we’re going to change that is to address the fundamental corruption in our government first. We shouldn’t be promising the moon when we know the rocket can’t get off the ground.

What is the strategy behind your new $100,000 ad buy? Where are you targeting, what do you hope the ads will show?

Money is the central issue. [Our] first ad was [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio. We’re going to move down to other candidates too, but do it in a way that puts that on the table and that’s a recognition of my name with this issue. It’s important to speak in a way that the people you’re trying to persuade will hear you. It’s true that money is a problem across the field, but it’s important for us in the Democratic primary to attack the issue in a way that doesn’t alienate the base right away. So that’s why we went with the obvious Republican targets first.

So will you stick with Republican targets in the ads, or eventually go across the aisle?

I don’t think it’s helpful not just for my campaign, but for the objective of winning to be attacking Democrats right now. But the campaign has a long life.

So what’s your next immediate goal if you don’t make it on stage next week?

There’s a bunch of polls that are out there that come before the end of the week, so it’s conceivable we could cross the line [to make the 1% poll average needed to participate in the CNN debate]. There’s a lot of people raising the issue about whether CNN should be restrictive like this. If you look at the viability of this campaign relative to Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb, I’ve qualified for public funding, they haven’t qualified for public funding, and there’s more energy and enthusiasm that’s driven support for my campaign than theirs. But if we don’t get onto the stage in Las Vegas then the push is to be onstage in the November debate. And we’re doing everything we can to qualify for that debate. We’ll see what the bar is for that.

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    Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com