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Cornel West
Cornel West is running for president under a new party called Justice for All. Andrew Harnik/AP

Cornel West Could Cause a Headache for Biden. First, He’d Have to Get on More Ballots.

The philosopher and academic launched a long shot third-party bid for president but needs far more funding to make the ballot in all 50 states.

Cornel West has little money in his presidential campaign bank account, no major party affiliation and no political action committee backing. Few watching his campaign, supportive or not, believe he’s likely to make it on most states’ ballots.

Many Democrats publicly pretend his campaign doesn’t exist.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told NOTUS when asked about West’s running mate selection. West was a campaign surrogate for Sanders in 2016 and 2020.

But West has the potential to sap enthusiasm and votes for President Joe Biden from the left in a way that’s unique in the rest of the presidential field. His campaign has yet to show the capacity to do it.

West pledged to stay in the race until November, hoping to disrupt the two-party system. He still has time to find his momentum, and if he does, it will likely hurt Democrats. Recent polls put West’s support between 1% and 3%, but many Democrats view his potential impact as siphoning votes from Biden as he travels the country criticizing the president from the left. And even if he doesn’t make the ballot in key states, some fear he could help motivate voters to stay home.

“The truth is, yeah, it certainly serves to add to the negative surround sound for African American voters, and that has a net negative effect on Joe Biden,” a Democratic source said.

Still, Democrats have largely developed a gloves-off approach to West’s candidacy, including this week when he announced a running mate, Melina Abdullah. Many Democratic organizations did not respond to the announcement, believing that West’s campaign could just fizzle out if left alone. And a few believe there’s still a chance of him backing Biden should he leave the race, given his history with Democrats and progressive values.

The biggest threat West poses to Biden is if he makes the ballot in battleground states. Ballot access is notoriously difficult, with requirements different for every state. A purposefully confusing process, its rules are intended to keep ballots across the nation clear of clutter and has become a nightmare for serious third-party contenders.

West, an activist, launched his campaign last summer under the umbrella of the People’s Party, then jumped to the Green Party, only to leave it in November to form his own party called Justice for All. Those moves complicated his efforts to get on the ballot — had he stayed in the Green Party, he could have easily appeared as its candidate in the 19 states where the party has a spot on ballots.

A source familiar with third-party politics said West planned to “build some serious grassroots energy” under his newly formed party once he left — and amass the money needed to launch a ballot initiative — like Sanders’ campaign in 2016.

“That was the vision I thought [West] had in his mind,” the source added. “I don’t think it has gone that way.”

West is currently on the ballot in four states — South Carolina, Alaska, Utah and Oregon — using already established parties like the United Citizens Party, Aurora Party and Progressive Party to gain entry, according to his campaign.

Getting on more ballots costs money, and West’s campaign has relatively little. As of the end of February, West’s campaign had raised $933,358 and had $26,048 cash on hand with nearly $13,000 in debts and obligations. The campaign declined to provide more recent fundraising numbers.

“He would have to significantly accelerate his fundraising if he wanted to get the ballot in all of these states, or even a handful of them,” said Malcolm Seymour, a New York litigator who represented the Bernie Sanders campaign in election suits.

The West campaign said it wants to focus on making the ballots in North Carolina, Florida and Washington state first. Meanwhile, West has campaigned heavily on the West Coast and in battleground states like Michigan, where he’s courted Arab, Muslim and Black voters who are furious over the Biden administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

In larger states where more signatures are needed to get on the ballot, services to collect petitions can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. West’s campaign has paid $62,000 to UpCard LLC in Florida for petitioning services, according to an FEC report. The campaign has other petitioning services listed for smaller dollar amounts in California, Texas and Washington.

“The amount paid by Dr. West [for petitioning services] as of the end of February would not be enough to fund full-scale ballot access efforts in a single state, let alone the 46 states where he still needs to get on the ballot,” Seymour said.

The other way to get on ballots is through an army of volunteers. The West campaign says it has amassed more than 10,000 volunteers across the nation, a figure that “reflects the widespread support for Dr. West’s vision and signifies a robust ground operation dedicated to achieving ballot access in every state,” Edwin DeJesus, co-manager and ballot access director, said in a statement. (The number was announced six months ago by former campaign manager Peter Daou, and the campaign did not give up-to-date numbers.)

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But outside observers say they haven’t seen evidence of a large-scale effort.

“He could still get on the ballot in a fairly large number of states if he had a lot of volunteers, but I hear from people that he’s not hardly petitioning anywhere,” said Richard Winger, co-editor of Ballot Access News, a newsletter that supports independent and third-party candidates by providing information on ballot rules.

There’s also the question of staff and their ability to run a presidential campaign. The campaign would not comment on how many staffers it employs, though some news reports put the number at 10. West’s wife handles media requests.

“One of the reasons why his campaign can seem disjointed is because he cannot attract the type of political operatives that one needs to run for president of the United States of America,” said a person familiar with the campaign’s operations, adding that those who work for West could get blacklisted from other Democratic circles.

Democrats are more concerned with the third-party bid of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has a super PAC funded in part by million-dollar donations from Republican donors. But they still hope to blunt any potential damage West could cause Biden. Save Our Republic PAC, a group that aims to limit the reach of independent campaigns, asked West to sign a “no spoilers” pledge if he fails to get on enough ballots to reach 270 electoral votes. West’s camp has yet to respond.

“The problem here isn’t that any of them are very strong or a threat to be on 50 ballots, even to be on 20 ballots,” said Joe Trippi, the longtime Democratic strategist who started Save Our Republic PAC. For West, Trippi said it only takes one key state to cause mayhem, even if the philosopher only gets 3% of the vote. “The threat’s real in that scenario where he’s on the ballot in a battleground state.”

West’s campaign denied that his run amounts to a “speaker’s circuit” or that it could be a spoiler for President Joe Biden.

“No politician owns a vote,” West said on Wednesday during an interview on the Tavis Smiley show. “We stand for what we stand for. If you go with us, then come with us and change the world.”

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed reporting.