How Does the Reform Party Choose Its Candidate?

Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, Cybill Shepherd, and former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker are all reportedly considering running for the Reform Party presidential nomination. How does the Reform Party choose its candidate?

Reform Party presidential candidates must prove their viability by conducting ballot drives as independents in some or all of the 29 states where the party nominee is not guaranteed a slot. (The party has ballot status in 21 states where local party representatives have been active since 1996.) Reform Party leaders will validate candidates based on their progress toward getting on the state ballots. Since there are no objective standards for approving or rejecting candidates, the process can be somewhat arbitrary. And because the party lacks nationally recognized politicians–excepting Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who has declined to run, and party founder Ross Perot, who remains a wildcard–a celebrity, tycoon, or a commentator is likely to be chosen for his high name recognition.

Next July, the qualified candidates will appear on a national primary ballot, which will be distributed to any registered voter who requests one. Votes will be cast by e-mail, phone, and conventional mail. Voters will rank their top three choices, and the candidate who receives a majority of No. 1 votes will be declared the winner. If nobody wins a majority, an “instant run-off” will be conducted: The candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes will be eliminated, and all the No. 2 votes cast on his ballots be elevated to No. 1 votes. This process of eliminating the last place finisher and elevating all No. 2 votes on his ballots will continue until a majority winner is declared. (If the No. 2 choice has been eliminated from the run-off, the No. 3 votes will be elevated to No. 1 votes.) The nomination will be ratified at the August 2000 convention in California.

Only 50,000 people voted in the 1996 Reform primary. If well-known candidates run in 2000, that number could explode, and the costs of distributing, auditing, and counting millions of ballots could bankrupt the party. Party leaders are also anxious about a takeover by a well-known candidate such as Buchanan, whose supporters could cast enough ballots in the primary to wrestle the party away from current members. Even a single-issue candidate, such as a staunch abortion opponent, might outperform an indigenous Reform hopeful. And Democratic or Republican voters could cast ballots for a nominee they hope will hurt the other party.

In light of these concerns, incoming Reform Party Chairman Jack Gargan has said he would like to alter the rules before the primary next year. But current party leaders support the present process, saying the openness is crucial if the Reform Party is to grow.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Micah L. Sifry, who is writing a book on the prospects for America’s third parties.