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Lawrence Lessig’s Presidential Bid Endures in Relative Obscurity

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Lawrence Lessig at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., last year. He has raised $ 1 million for his presidential bid. Credit Charlie Mahoney for The New York Times

He is a luminary in the world of cyberlaw, a star Harvard professor with a résumé a hundred pages thick, and a sensation on the thought leader circuit. But even though he has raised more than $ 1 million for his presidential bid, Lawrence Lessig, who is mounting a quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination, is struggling to get noticed.

He was excluded from his party’s first debate on the grounds of weak poll numbers, while many surveys have not bothered to ask voters about him. As two rivals, former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, dropped out of the race last week, narrowing the Democratic field, Mr. Lessig still could not cadge an invitation to the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa on Saturday night. And while they have no doubts about his intellect, even some of his academic friends question his intentions and whether he is really of presidential timber.

Still, that does not deter Mr. Lessig, whose campaign has a singular focus on an issue that polls show deeply resonates with voters: overhauling the campaign finance system, which he calls the root of America’s problems.

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Mr. Lessig at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention in September in Manchester, N.H. Credit Scott Eisen/Getty Images

“It’s been my whole life to focus on this issue and get people to recognize this fundamental point first,” Mr. Lessig said, referring to the idea that nothing in politics can be accomplished until a corrupt system is cured. “One of the hardest challenges here is to have the chance to make the point I want to make.”

He knew all along it would be a hard sell. At a TED Talk in 2013, Mr. Lessig paced across a stage in Long Beach, Calif., dazzling a packed auditorium with quirky slides that used devices like theoretical countries and sayings by Henry David Thoreau to make his case that big money is plaguing politics.

“The analytics are easy here,” Mr. Lessig — wearing a black vest and tiny glasses, his hair slicked back — said at the time. “It’s the politics that’s hard.”

Less than three years later, that has proved true.

Despite raising more money than Mr. Chafee, Mr. Webb and several Republicans, Mr. Lessig’s candidacy is not considered serious by many analysts or party leaders, who see him as an activist and gadfly. He did not dispel that notion when he introduced himself as a “referendum” candidate who would step down as president once he managed to overhaul the campaign finance system.

With two weeks to go until the next Democratic debate, Mr. Lessig is trying to resuscitate his campaign in hopes of polling high enough to win a spot on the stage. Last week, he renounced his resignation plans and promised to serve out a full term in the White House.

He has also relented on his insistence that campaign finance is his only cause, unveiling policy positions on 15 other issues, including tax reform and health care. And Mr. Lessig is perhaps the only candidate around who attacked low-polling rivals such as Mr. Chafee and Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland.

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“Why were they there? What were they offering?” Mr. Lessig wondered of Mr. Chafee, Mr. Webb and Mr. O’Malley. “Other candidates are playing a game of fantasy politics.”

For Mr. Lessig, the solutions are simple. He thinks a fundamental overhaul of the electoral process is needed to put an end to the gridlock in Washington. In short, he wants to tear up the congressional redistricting system to end gerrymandering, enact automatic voter registration and Election Day “holidays,” and give voters vouchers that can be used to finance campaigns.

Admittedly a long shot, Mr. Lessig, with his $ 1 million in funds, is not giving up on his dream. His campaign has invested in private polling that supports the logic of his candidacy, and his small team in Cambridge, Mass., has been working hard to book him on national television and create a sense of momentum.

“As Webb Drops Out, Lessig Ascends,” the campaign wrote in an email blast on Tuesday night promoting an online national poll conducted internally in early October — show support for Mr. Lessig much higher than independent polls are indicating.

After Mr. Chafee’s departure, Mr. Lessig said that he thought there should be a spot for him on the debate stage, “at least if they want to keep this thing interesting.”

To some outsiders, it is Mr. Lessig who is playing fantasy politics and embarrassing himself by taking his cause too far.

Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, has criticized Mr. Lessig, saying his mission as a so-called born-again money-in-politics expert is starting to discredit and overshadow the brilliant scholarship that brought him to prominence.

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“I’m not surprised by the lack of traction,” Mr. Mann said, noting that Mr. Lessig had revealed less about how he would bring his proposals to fruition. “It’s like he got ahold of an idea that he wouldn’t let go of.”

Mr. Lessig first became interested in politics as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he took a leave of absence to work for a Republican who was running for the State Senate. He considered becoming an operative, before academia beckoned again and he went to study philosophy at Cambridge University, and then law at Yale.

After spending years defending Internet freedom, he came to see corruption in politics as a monster that must be defeated, and he did not let go of the cause. Last year, Mr. Lessig started a “super PAC to end all super PACs,” and in September, he set his sights on the White House.

Back at Harvard, where he is on leave, Mr. Lessig’s cause has been met with a mix of bemusement, encouragement and concern.

“Larry’s a terrific guy, but I don’t think that because you have a very important project, that therefore you should be in charge of all the millions of things the president is in charge of, including foreign policy,” said Charles Fried, a conservative Harvard Law School professor who gave Mr. Lessig $ 100 anyway.

Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law professor who was best man at Mr. Lessig’s wedding, was surprised last summer when they sat on a boat in New Hampshire and his old friend revealed his plans to run for president. While highly intelligent, he said, Mr. Lessig does not have the chatty demeanor of a regular politician, and Mr. Whiting said he worried about the toll the campaign could take.

“I think it’s been frustrating for him,” Mr. Whiting said. “He’s brilliant and offers new ways of thinking about familiar problems, but ideas don’t always carry the day.”

Mr. Whiting said he was getting used to seeing Mr. Lessig as a candidate. “Imagining him as president, that’s a further leap,” he said.

Although Mr. Lessig denies that he is just trying to make a statement, at the very least, his campaign, if it ultimately fails, could underscore his point that the modern-day presidency’s being available to anyone is a myth.

“It becomes a vicious cycle of not being able to compete because you are set up as someone who is not allowed to compete,” he said.

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