As election season becomes election month, top contenders are focusing on tying up swing states and trying not to tank debates. Connor Ratliff, the official presidential candidate of The Chris Gethard Show, has other priorities: putting the finishing touches on his new documentary, Old Enough To Be President: Connor Ratliff’s 35-Year Journey To The White House (which premieres October 15 at 92YTribeca).
Ratliff’s campaign began as a one-off video for public access talk show TCGS, and quickly blossomed into a full-blown political powerhouse, branching out to include national events, a full staff, and celebrity endorsements. His platform is simple – he meets the Constitutionally mandated minimum age for candidacy – and his resolve hasn’t wavered over his 14-month campaign.
“In many ways the campaign has been about sheer narcissism. There’s a feeling of entitlement, that just because I’m old enough, therefore I should be president,” Ratliff explains. “I’ve always been amused by the specificity of the presidential age limit. I’ve always thought that’s a funny, mundane thing in the Constitution, it always just seemed like, why 35? There is an element of making fun of that: the Founding Fathers put the number 35 in the Constitution. therefore it must have been the perfect number.”
Ratliff’s hyper-serious ad campaigns and public appearances have built a character as bumbling and awkward as he is sincere, and while his platform seems laughably simple, this is more than just a joke campaign. Think of it as one part political satire, one part Improv Everywhere, and entirely an exercise in creative production. From wrangling an interview with notoriously high-strung political figure Jimmy McMillan, to making a campaign stop in Alaska, Ratliff, Gethard, and their crew have shaped the bit into one of the show’s most beloved recurring characters – and, inadvertently, the election’s longest-enduring fringe candidate.
“Most of the good things have happened through planning one thing and accepting it when it goes another way,” Ratliff explains. “A lot of this campaign has been about me having a general lack of embarrassment and just going along with whatever happens next. I’m putting myself out there aggressively and kind of being shameless.”
It’s definitely paid off. Looking back on the past year, Ratliff shares some of his favorite weird (and wonderful) campaign moments with us.
1. Campaigning on The Chris Gethard Show
In August of 2011 – back when Herman Cain and Rick Perry were still relevant – Connor Ratliff announced his candidacy:
Last October, in one of TCGS’ finest moments, Ratliff’s campaign got its first taste of legitimacy when presidential hopeful Jimmy McMillan – the wild-haired founder of The Rent Is Too Damn High Party – stopped by for a semi-serious debate (slash Halloween Spooktacular special). The episode wasn’t even supposed to happen. Ratliff had announced his intention to stage a debate between the candidates, assuming it would end up being a bust. He got two official responses – a polite decline from the Romney camp, and an immediate acceptance letter from McMillan.
“That was one of the show’s first really, truly surreal moments,” recalls Ratliff, “when I showed up and Jimmy McMillan was there, and Gethard was in a suit, and the place was set up for the debate. The atmosphere was really different, we had no idea what was going to happen. I’ve been doing improv at the UCB Theater for a few years, and I’ve never had quite the same feeling.”
While Ratliff ultimately lost the debate, surrendering the studio audience to McMillan’s confusing charm (the episode ends with chants of “Daddy!” after the candidate repeatedly refers to the crowd as his “children”), he manages to stay on message, even when things get weird:
2. Wrestling The Human Fish, And Other Public Appearances
The campaign became bigger as Ratliff began earning media attention, organizing rallies, and establishing a network of supporters (with official representatives in 28 states, plus Sweden and Canada). In March, when Gethard and his crew traveled to SXSW, Ratliff came along and ended up in his underwear, covered in grease, in front of a few hundred fans.
“I was just going to give a quick little stump speech, but when I went out to do my bit they had already gone through their act so fast, we had a lot of time to fill. Someone asked me if I would be willing to wrestle the Human Fish – that was a bit in their show, wresting the Human Fish in Crisco in a kiddie pool – and I said sure, even though I didn’t want to do it at all, because what no one else knew was that for months I had been wearing these bright red boxer briefs with my face on them, and I hadn’t told anyone. Every time I wore my campaign suit, I was wearing this underwear.”
This summer, he also held two official press events. While they failed to attract major outlet attention, both were exercises in improv endurance, from June’s hour-long Battery Park publicity junket the Del Close Marathon-sponsored Town Hall, which addressed 27 questions in under three minutes.
“I had just done a Stepfathers show and we are were literally running down to the venue to change for the Gethard Show, so I didn’t even have time to think about it before I rushed onstage. The first question was something about Steve Winwood, and I thought, oh no, did Steve Winwood kill somebody, what happened?”
Last month, Ratliff held a concert rally to raise awareness for his campaign. To get into the spirit, he created his own pop-inspired theme. “I realized it was coming months after everyone was sick of ‘Call Me Maybe’ parodies, but I felt like my version made sense for my character – he would be a little behind the curve on that,” he explains.
3. Inevitably Aging
When your entire platform is built around your very specific age, there’s really only one unavoidable setback: a birthday. Ratliff has celebrated two during the course of his campaign, the first of which occurred after only a month of establishing the “35 Ratliff 2012” slogan.
“When it came time to turn 37, by coincidence I happened to be in Alaska, which was perfect – my birthday was four hours later,” says Ratlif. “I woke up before the sun had risen, and the video is just me with a Flip cam walking around Anchorage. I was just wandering around trying to look inconspicuous, and I saw a couple of teenagers who looked a little dodgy, like they were up to no good; I saw them considering me, and I think what I was doing was crazier than they wanted to mess with – giving this speech to nothing, with no one around, at like 5:30 in the morning.”
4. Celebrity Endorsements
Long before many public figures were willing to give political endorsements, Ratliff snagged one of the first: multi-season Survivor contestant “Coach” Wade, who is just about the most badass person to have in your corner:
Because this was a campaign that nobody expected to last more than a few months in the first place, Ratliff decided to step things up for The Veepstakes – he wanted a running mate who would take his presidential bid to the next level, someone well-known and trustworthy, who could help bring the bit to a bigger audience. Who better than a Friend? Ratliff began producing ads courting Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, and Monica He explains: “My contention is that over the arc of the show, we see a group of people in their mid-20s gradually become old enough to be Vice President.”
While ultimately, Rachel Aniston and Courtney Cox didn’t commit to the campaign, Ratliff was surprised to get a response from someone very similar: Larry Hankin, who played the Friends’ crabby downstairs neighbor Mr. Heckles. “When I started the bit I had no idea where it was going,” Ratliff admits. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to get one of the most recognizable recurring characters on that show to agree with it.”
5. Growing the Campaign
In March of 2012, when it became clear that this campaign might just last out the election, Ratliff decided to take the joke out of the context of the show and conduct a real, live focus group, complete with Craigslist participants. Former Gethard Show regular Will Hines was on hand to play the part of the campaign manager. “We actually hired people for a real focus group – there was no indication that I was a joke or anything. We offered people $20 and a donut on Craigslist, asking for 35 minutes. Will Hines ran the focus group so realistically, he ran it for 90 minutes, and no one complained. To be able to, for an hour and a half, just be a pollster and run a focus group, it was almost like he was quantum leaping or something.”
The focus group was the first indication that 35 Ratliff 2012 might have legs outside the context of a comedic public access show. “Once we saw the results of that focus group, I was like, I bet we can put together a convincing campaign documentary that chronicles this,” says Ratliff. “I got a lot of footage over the past year. From the Gethard Show, from the various live appearances – a lot of stuff that’s never been seen by anyone – from kind of wild places, a lot of different states. And I also put together a campaign staff, and we filmed behind the scenes footage and interviews.” (You can meet Ratliff’s whole staff on YouTube.)
The result is Old Enough To Be President: Connor Ratliff’s 35-Year Journey To The White House, which the director / star explains is not a mockumentary, but rather, an exploration of the candidate’s experience:
The 45-minute documentary will screen on October 15 at the 92YTribeca (tickets to the screening are available online); it will also be online several weeks after the premiere.