Presidential Campaigns Use Virginia Elections as Opportunity to Qualify for 2016 Primary

Voters casting ballots in the 2015 elections.AP Photo/Tony Dejak

After serving eight terms in Con­gress, Tom Cole­man got used to ask­ing people to vote for him. This Elec­tion Day, though, Cole­man camped out in front of a Vir­gin­ia pre­cinct ask­ing for sig­na­tures on be­half of an­oth­er can­did­ate.

As voters ar­rived at Wash­ing­ton Mill Ele­ment­ary School in Al­ex­an­dria on a crisp fall morn­ing to vote in state and loc­al elec­tions Tues­day, Cole­man greeted them, hold­ing a clip­board with a stack of pe­ti­tions, a pen, and a blue “Kasich For Us” stick­er af­fixed to the back. His job—one that’s usu­ally re­served for vo­lun­teers and low-level staffers—was to col­lect as many sig­na­tures as pos­sible to help his one­time House col­league, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, qual­i­fy for the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary in Vir­gin­ia.

By 8:15 a.m., Cole­man was an hour in­to his day and had 15 sig­na­tures to show for it. “I had no idea if I’d even get one,” Cole­man joked, not­ing he had nev­er done this be­fore.

Though Kasich and oth­er pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are spend­ing most of their cam­paign time in early-vot­ing states such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire, their cam­paigns are busy meet­ing qual­i­fic­a­tions for the primary bal­lot in many oth­er states across the coun­try. While some states ask only for signed pa­per­work or a fil­ing fee, oth­ers re­quire thou­sands of pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures from re­gistered voters. Vir­gin­ia has some of the strict­est re­quire­ments: 5,000 sig­na­tures, in­clud­ing at least 200 from each of the state’s 11 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, sub­mit­ted by Dec. 10. In 2012, every pres­id­en­tial cam­paign ex­cept Mitt Rom­ney’s and Ron Paul’s failed to meet Vir­gin­ia’s threshold, which used to be even high­er.

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The 2015 elec­tions provided the best op­por­tun­ity left for pe­ti­tion-gather­ers to find crowds en­tirely com­prised of re­gistered voters. So cam­paigns dis­patched vo­lun­teers and field staffers to pre­cincts around Vir­gin­ia, look­ing for voters to sup­port their bal­lot-ac­cess ef­forts.

“You go fish­ing where the fish are,” as Cole­man put it.

Just be­fore 9 a.m., Cole­man snared an­oth­er one for Kasich: former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man Ed Gillespie, who is plan­ning to run for gov­ernor in 2017.

“Hey Tom! How’re you do­ing?” a sur­prised Gillespie ex­claimed as he ar­rived at the polling place with his wife, Cathy. After ex­chan­ging pleas­ant­ries, Cole­man se­cured sig­na­tures from both Gillespies.

Barely a mo­ment had passed be­fore an­oth­er pe­ti­tion-gather­er ap­proached the couple. This time, it was Karaina Cal­la­han, a re­cent col­lege gradu­ate aid­ing Ben Car­son’s cam­paign. She had been at the school since just after 6 a.m., when the polls opened. “We ac­tu­ally did one for Ben Car­son” already, Cathy Gillespie told her.

Had a vo­lun­teer for Lind­sey Gra­ham’s cam­paign stuck around just a bit longer, the Gillespies likely would have fielded one more re­quest for their auto­graphs be­fore head­ing in­side to vote.

The vo­lun­teers at the ele­ment­ary school were just one small part of a massive ef­fort by pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns which, Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­ans said, are far more pre­pared than their 2012 coun­ter­parts were. Some cam­paigns began train­ing vo­lun­teers and cir­cu­lat­ing pe­ti­tions as early as Ju­ly, and most have main­tained a con­sist­ent pres­ence at loc­al party meet­ings, county fairs, gun shows, and pop­u­lar res­taur­ants over the past few months. In ad­di­tion, Re­pub­lic­an groups around the state have been pro­act­ive about get­ting can­did­ates’ pe­ti­tions in front of act­iv­ists in a way they wer­en’t in pre­vi­ous cycles. 

“The re­quire­ment be­fore, while it was high­er than it is this year, didn’t really pre­vent cam­paigns from get­ting on the bal­lot. The ones who didn’t just waited very late to start,” said Mi­chael Thomas, the first vice chair­man of the Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an Party. “The cam­paigns are more aware of it, and a lot of Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ists and lead­ers see the value of hav­ing as full a field as pos­sible.”

The Kasich cam­paign dis­patched roughly 200 vo­lun­teers to all corners of the state Tues­day, cov­er­ing all 11 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts and 10 per­cent of Vir­gin­ia’s total pre­cincts. Bret Coulson, Kasich’s cam­paign dir­ect­or in Vir­gin­ia, said he ex­pec­ted to col­lect between 4,000 and 5,000 sig­na­tures on Elec­tion Day alone. He ad­ded that he hopes to file more than 7,500 sig­na­tures with the state elec­tions board, just in case some of them aren’t val­id.

Car­son’s team sent between 50 and 100 vo­lun­teers around Vir­gin­ia on Tues­day, ask­ing each of them to col­lect around 100 sig­na­tures—a feat that Cal­la­han ac­com­plished be­fore noon in Al­ex­an­dria. Spokes­man Doug Watts said the cam­paign already had 5,400 sig­na­tures filed away. The Car­son cam­paign is also aim­ing for 7,500 total, in­clud­ing 200 per­cent of what’s re­quired in each con­gres­sion­al dis­trict, by the Decem­ber dead­line to as­sure that Car­son makes the bal­lot.

“The Elec­tion Day col­lec­tion really sim­pli­fies the pro­cess,” said Pa­tri­cia Phil­lips, Car­son’s Vir­gin­ia state dir­ect­or. “This will be our big chance.”

State party of­fi­cials also ex­pec­ted cam­paigns for sev­er­al oth­er can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Jeb Bush, Marco Ru­bio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fior­ina, and Rand Paul, to have sig­na­ture-gather­ers sta­tioned at polling places around the state.

One can­did­ate who didn’t need to worry about mass­ing vo­lun­teers for Elec­tion Day: Don­ald Trump. The real es­tate mogul an­nounced Monday that he had already sub­mit­ted 15,000 sig­na­tures in Vir­gin­ia, a Su­per Tues­day primary state. Next month’s dead­line will rep­res­ent a key or­gan­iz­a­tion­al test for oth­er cam­paigns that are ex­pand­ing their op­er­a­tions out­side of the early-nom­in­at­ing states.

“It’s an or­gan­iz­a­tion­al ex­er­cise that re­quires a pres­ence in every dis­trict in the state, and that’s not something that can be de­veloped overnight,” said Chris La­Civ­ita, a Vir­gin­ia-based strategist who’s ad­vising Paul’s cam­paign. “Hav­ing act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion and pres­ence is half the ball game.”

Most cam­paigns ap­pear to have that in Vir­gin­ia. So with the fil­ing dead­line now just over five weeks away, Re­pub­lic­ans in the state aren’t ex­pect­ing his­tory to re­peat it­self.

“I don’t think it’s go­ing to be the same prob­lem this time to get on the bal­lot,” said former Rep. Tom Dav­is, co­chair of Kasich’s Vir­gin­ia cam­paign. “For any­body who’s got their eyes wide open, this shouldn’t be a heavy lift.”