With every twist, every news break, every scandal and rumor and “here’s what the electoral map would look like if only the section of the Deadwood cast that worked at the saloon voted” zombie-irony simulation, there is one fundamental (if hacky) conclusion we seem to keep coming back to during this election cycle: that you couldn’t make it up if you tried.
Which, of course hasn’t stopped people from trying.
And in the spirit of our current (if finally winding down) Stranger Than Fiction Election … we thought we’d put this notion to the test: What if we had our very own Just Plain Fiction Election? Ten fictional presidential candidates, from nine fictional movies or TV shows — pitted against one another in a fight to the elective death.
Here are the rules: four categories, weighted equally, with points awarded based on placement within each category.
And here are the candidates — 10 fictional presidents who have been through a full* election cycle:
David Palmer — 24 (Dennis Haysbert)
Frank Underwood — House of Cards (Kevin Spacey)
Fitzgerald Grant III — Scandal (Tony Goldwyn)
Selina Meyer — Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)
Andrew Shepherd — The American President (Michael Douglas)
Jed Bartlet — The West Wing (Martin Sheen)
Matthew Santos — The West Wing (Jimmy Smits)
Joe Bauers — Idiocracy (Luke Wilson)
Mays Gilliam — Head of State (Chris Rock)
Jack Stanton — Primary Colors (John Travolta)
[*So, for example — Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall: great performance, great president, no election in Air Force One, not on the list.]
And that’s really it. We have our presidents, we have our rules, and we have our collective national death spiral into the absurd.
This is the 2016 Fictional Presidential Election. Let’s fight.
Category No. 1: Skeletons in Closet
“Skeletons in closet” may be more of a fringe concern in IRL presidential politics, but in fictional presidential politics it’s no. 1 with a bullet. Because — and not to disillusion you — here is the cold, hard truth: Most fictional presidents have seen some things, and done some things. And sometimes those things can’t be undone … and can’t be unseen.
For our 10-president candidate pool, the “skeletons in closet” category can be broken down into four tiers, with points awarded within each tier (fewer skeletons means more points):
Tier 1 is the “skeletons-free” tier. These are the candidates who are good people without qualification, and have nothing to hide. (Although having nothing to hide is also, in its own way, a little creepy? But I’m sure it’s fine.) These candidates are squeaky clean, making them immune to even the most vicious opposition research. If you support a candidate from this tier, then you can rest assured that, come election time, there will be no scandal, or -gate, or October Surprise, unless you consider a nice romantic dinner a surprise, it would be nothing fancy, just an incredible meal and a nice bottle of wine at your favorite restaurant, they’re closed tonight but the chef, he’s a friend, is reopening with a limited menu as a personal favor, so it could be just the two of us, having some Us Time, no phones, no emails, no texts, actually this one text I just got is important but after that no texts, no kids, no work, none of that, you look so beautiful tonight, I hope these roses are enough, I grew them myself, in this little garden that I built from scratch, it was no big deal, it’s just a garden that I built from scratch to grow roses in for you, “You have a green thumb,” people keep telling me, and I tell them, “It’s not my thumb that’s green; it’s my heart,” I don’t know, that’s just something I thought of to say.
The two candidates in Tier 1 are Matthew Santos (9 points) and David Palmer (10 points). Santos is a product of The West Wing’s late-period “fuck it, let’s spend this syndication money on Jet Skis and make the president a perfect person” era, while Palmer is — I mean, look: David Palmer found out that his son WAS AN ACTUAL MURDER SUSPECT, IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ACTUAL PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, and his response was to preemptively come clean. Also he got shot and died and people probably went through his closet looking for skeletons and also searched his Gmail for the phrase “skeletons in my closet,” and I’m pretty sure no one ever mentioned finding anything.
Tier 2 is the “flawed a normal amount” tier. These are the candidates who are basically good people, but who — like any other basically good person — may have hidden a little multiple sclerosis from a few hundred million American citizens in a crazed bid for eternal power.
This tier of candidates is probably the closest to what we imagine a “normal person” to be, on the morality scale — and I suppose there is some comfort in “normal.” But at the same time: There are flaws here, pure and simple, and an opponent’s opposition research may expose them. If you support a candidate from this tier, then you can feel good about yourself … but you also can count on a few surprises. Such is the gift and the curse of the human element.
The four candidates in this tier are Jed Bartlet, Mays Gilliam, Joe Bauers, and Andrew Shepherd. Jed Bartlet lied about having MS and covertly — I’ll say it: shadily — green-lit the assassination of the Qumari minister of defense (5 points). Joe Bauers escaped from prison and bribed a lawyer named Frito (8 points). Mays Gilliam resorted to smear campaigning, a classic indicator of having something to hide (6 points). And Andrew Shepherd seems clean but it’s 50/50 he did some advanced-level Snowden shit to get Annette Bening’s phone number (7 points).
Tier 3 is the “standard bad person who would get into politics” tier. These are your everyday assholes, your run-of-the-mill “don’t tag me in that photo, please, fellow 19-year-old, I’m running for president someday” deviant-cynics. If you support a candidate from this tier, then you probably won’t feel great about yourself … and yet: Maybe that’s the point.
The three candidates in this tier are Jack Stanton (3 points), Selina Meyer (4 points), and Fitzgerald Grant (2 points). Jack Stanton unintentionally induced Kathy Bates’s suicide by having no morals. Selina Meyer once said, “You’re going to cancel this recount like Anne Frank’s bat mitzvah.”
And Fitzgerald Grant … [deepest WASPiest breath] … rigged an electronic voting machine to fix the presidential election in his favor. Had an “Oval Office and chill”–level-brazen affair with his communications director, then said “IDK TBH” when asked if his pregnant intern’s baby was his. Didn’t not order the torture of his ex-mistress’s newish boyfriend. Cried disingenuously a lot.
But mostly? He was the bad guy in Ghost and I don’t fucking trust him.
And finally, there’s Tier 4: the “tossed Kate Mara like a horseshoe in front of a moving train” tier. These are the candidates (Frank Underwood, 1 point) who tossed Kate Mara like a horseshoe in front of a moving train.
If you support a candidate from this tier, then you support the center-left’s burgeoning anti–Kate Mara movement — and that’s between you and your god.
Category No. 2: Campaign Prowess
Can you survive being a bad person in fictional presidential politics? Yes. But can you survive being a bad … campaigner in fictional presidential politics? Actually yeah, definitely, 100 percent. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Here’s how our 10 candidates stack up when it comes to issue precision, voter connection, debate performance, kissing babies, giving speeches, holding hands, making plans, and so on — the seams of inside baseball that hold a fictional presidential candidacy together:
10. Fitzgerald Grant III (1 point) is the worst fictional campaigner in history. He’s a worse campaigner than Joe Bauers — who never had to campaign. He’s a worse campaigner than Selina Meyer — who is the only president on this list who actually lost an election, and lost twice, including once as an incumbent. He’s worse than the “playing out the string”–seasons 24 presidents — whose collective platform essentially amounted to, “25th Amendment, bitches.” He’s worse than everyone.
Why? Well, because Fitz just doesn’t care. He honestly, from the bottom of his hot, dumb, nepotism-addled heart, just doesn’t care about politics. All Fitz cares about is being in love.
As a person, that’s (maybe, IDK, it’s still pretty annoying) admirable. But as a candidate — it’s flat-out irresponsible.
9. Joe Bauers (2 points): Made the classic jump from mediocre Army librarian to faulty government experiment to prisoner awaiting trial in mentally degraded dystopia to escaped convict to interior secretary to death-row inmate with “die by monster-truck demolition derby” sentence to vice president to president — and made it without running a single campaign. Beyond impressive, but the meaning is the same: As a political gladiator, Bauers is untested.
8. Selina Meyer (3 points)
7. Andrew Shepherd (4 points): Almost simultaneously blew a 63 percent approval rating and his relationship with Annette Bening:
But then didn’t, because:
6. Mays Gilliam (5 points): The “wins outsider campaign by telling it like it is” trope … maybe … hasn’t aged so well. But in 2003? It plays.
5. Jed Bartlet (6 points): Was always characterized as a great campaigner, and I don’t doubt it. But honestly, I think this needs to be said: The competition in both Bartlet elections was weak. In the ’98 primary, Bartlet beat John Hoynes, a supposedly formidable “broad-appeal” Democrat whom [Sorkin voice] even Republicans loved. This was considered a huge upset at the time, and is where Bartlet burnished much of his “campaign shark” reputation. But knowing what we know now about Hoynes (i.e., that he’s a walking scandal, and more or less the West Wing universe version of a proto-haircut John Edwards)? The victory loses a lot of its luster. (Maybe think of Bartlet d. Hoynes as, like, an early-season win by a middle-of-the-pack team over a top-ranked team in college football. Looks great … until the top-ranked team then loses three more games in a row. Sometimes a Big Win doesn’t stay a big win. Sometimes it turns out the Big Opponent just sucks.)
As for Bartlet’s pair of general elections: His ’98 opponent is never even mentioned. And his ’02 opponent … well …
Look — I’m not saying Bartlet’s a bad campaigner. He’s world-class. He’s smart, and confident, and likable, and thoughtful, and easily the superior debater in this field. He’s top five all time, and I feel great about that. But the Bartlet campaign record … I’m sorry: It just isn’t impressive. Strength of schedule matters. And he beat up on some pretty small schools.
4. Jack Stanton (7 points):
3. Matthew Santos (8 points): Won the presidency as a no-name congressman.
2. Frank Underwood (9 points): I feel totally confident that Frank Underwood would — somehow, someway, you probably wouldn’t survive, don’t worry I’d make sure your gravestone read “Politics, Baby!” in cursive — find a way to win an election against everyone on this list. And I suppose, by that metric, there is a strong case for Underwood at no. 1.
But I can’t do it. And I can’t do it because …
1. David Palmer (10 points): David Palmer won the California primary (and subsequent presidential election) while overcoming — holy shit, the first season of 24 was amazing — an assassination plot, a murder investigation, a kidnapping, a divorce, a faking of his own death, AND HAVING TO PRETEND WITH A STRAIGHT FACE THAT “CTU” IS A REAL THING THAT REALLY EXISTS REALLY FOR REAL. That’s astonishing. No one has ever done that before.
David Palmer is our greatest fictional presidential campaigner.
Category No. 3: Wildly Informal Ringer Staff Poll
Members of the Ringer staff were asked to cast their votes for a presidential ticket from within the given candidate pool: a president (two vote-units), and a vice president (one vote-unit). Here are those results:
David Palmer–Selina Meyer (Katie Baker)
Jed Bartlet–Selina Meyer (Caitlin Blosser)
Selina Meyer–Mays Gilliam (Carl Brooks Jr.)
David Palmer–Jack Stanton (Danny Chau)
Jed Bartlet–Andrew Shepherd (Kevin Clark)
Selina Meyer–Andrew Shepherd (K. Austin Collins)
Jed Bartlet–Joe Bauers (Jason Concepcion)
Selina Meyer–Fitzgerald Grant (Allison P. Davis)
Jed Bartlet–Andrew Shepherd (Amanda Dobbins)
Selina Meyer–Andrew Shepherd (Sam Donsky)
Jack Stanton–“No VP. Stanton rides alone.” (Sean Fennessey)
David Palmer–Fitzgerald Grant (Sam Fortier)
Andrew Shepherd–Joe Bauers (Tate Frazier)
Jed Bartlet–Mays Gilliam (Rob Harvilla)
Matthew Santos–Selina Meyer (Alison Herman)
Matthew Santos–Mays Gilliam (Kate Knibbs)
Jed Bartlet–Joe Bauers (Zach Kram)
Andrew Shepherd–Jed Bartlet (Juliet Litman)
David Palmer–Jed Bartlet (Riley McAtee)
Selina Meyer–Frank Underwood (Claire McNear)
David Palmer–Matthew Santos (Haley O’Shaughnessy)
Jed Bartlet–Frank Underwood (Micah Peters)
Frank Underwood–Selina Meyer (Mallory Rubin)
David Palmer–Selina Meyer (Chris Ryan)
David Palmer–Mays Gilliam (Sam Schube)
Matthew Santos–Fitzgerald Grant (Megan Schuster)
David Palmer–Selina Meyer (Lindsay Zoladz)
RANKINGS: t8. Grant — 3 votes (2 points), t8. Bauers — 3 votes (2 points), t8. Stanton — 3 votes (2 points), t6. Gilliam — 4 votes (4.5 points), t6. Underwood — 4 votes (4.5 points), 5. Santos — 7 votes (6 points), 4. Shepherd — 8 votes (7 points), t2. Bartlet — 16 votes (8.5 points), t2. Palmer — 16 votes (8.5 points), 1. Meyer — 17 votes (10 points)
Category No. 4: Intangibles
And finally: intangibles.
When it comes to presidential politics, “intangibles” have historically been affirmed by the results of one famous, often mystical metric: the “Which candidate would you most want to have a beer with?” Test. Here is that test, applied to our 10 candidates:
10. Fitzgerald Grant (1 point)
Having a drink with Fitz would have its pros and its cons.
Pros: You would drink some of the world’s best scotch. Also, you would drink some of the world’s best scotch.
Cons: Literally everything else.
First, he would pour your drinks on a silver platter, like you’re at a banquet in Narnia, or at the silver platter store. This would take about 10 minutes — as he would have to pour using some special, semi-secret, old-timey method with a long dumb name. “OK if I give these an Oxford Platinum Traditional pour? — and I’m thinking … hmm … New England style?” he would ask, and then you would say, [it wouldn’t matter what you would say].
Then, when he finally brought over the drinks, he would make a note about what kind of scotch it was, and how old:
Wow please stop.
Actually impeach yourself.
9. Jed Bartlet (2 points)
8. Matthew Santos (3 points)
I love The West Wing, but is it the worst drinking show ever? The West Wing is like Bizarro Cheers: I am not sure I would want to get a drink with any of the main characters on it.
Let’s run through this list:
Leo McGarry: Doesn’t drink.
Mandy Hampton: Worst.
Arnold Vinick: Under no circumstances.
Will Bailey: I would agree to drinks and then reschedule at the last minute and then stay stressed for the next week about how close drinks were to happening.
Jed Bartlet: It’s not something I would do.
Kate Harper: Dated Will, so, no.
Josh Lyman: For a large fee.
Donna Moss: For a smaller but still large fee.
Matthew Santos: Wouldn’t enjoy myself but I’d manage.
Abbey Bartlet: Could see it going downhill fast but might be fine.
Toby Ziegler: In one very specific mood I get in sometimes, possibly.
Annabeth Schott: In one very specific mood I get in sometimes, possibly.
Sam Seaborn: 50/50.
Charlie Young: Sure.
C.J. Cregg: I would get a drink with C.J. Cregg.
7. Frank Underwood (4 points)
I see a night out drinking with Frank playing out approximately like this: First, he would offer you some champagne.
You would tell him thanks, but no more bullshit — you know Doug keeps a bottle of Old Darby lying around.
He would tell you no, that’s Doug’s private stash, it wouldn’t be right, and then he would calmly turn to the camera and whisper, “The goldfish must always respect the fish tank’s walls — that’s how it knows it’s wet.”
You would compromise and split a bottle of Snapple, one-third emptied and refilled with bottom-grade bourbon. At the end of the night you would play four rounds of Russian roulette and no one would die.
6. David Palmer (5 points)
5. Joe Bauers (6 points)
The two most important qualities in a drinking buddy:
(1) An ineluctable inner sadness.
(2) An ineluctable outer sadness.
4. Jack Stanton (7 points)
Jack Stanton is basically Bill Clinton, and “Bill Clinton would be a basically good bar hang” is one of the most agreeable notions in the history of American politics.
Also, while we’re here:
My “would you want to have a beer with them?” Mount Rushmore: (4) Bill Clinton (BOCANEGRA HIVE), (3) Ronald Reagan (Old Hollywood stories), (2) Barack Obama (my almost-favorite things: basketball and Guinness), (1) Lyndon Johnson (my favorite things: JFK conspiracy theories and Lone Star).
3. Andrew Shepherd (8 points)
2. Mays Gilliam (9 points)
2003 Chris Rock.
1. Selina Meyer (10 points)
And there you have it. It wasn’t an easy race, and it wasn’t a perfect race, and — look: Kate Mara had to die. But it was a fair race … and in a fictional democracy, that’s what’s fictionally important.
10. Fitzgerald Grant (6 points)
9. Joe Bauers (18 points)
8. Frank Underwood (18.5 points)
7. Jack Stanton (19 points)
6. Jed Bartlet (21.5 points)
5. Mays Gilliam (24.5 points)
t3. Andrew Shepherd (26 points)
t3. Matthew Santos (26 points)
2. Selina Meyer (27 points)
1. David Palmer (33.5 points)
Congratulations to our winners — a deeply American blend of insurance sales and narcissism, of baritone silence and “that’s like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo.” He got shot in Season 5, and she got fired. But politics is about second chances — and fictional politics is about whatever chance comes after that. Congratulations to President David Palmer and Vice President Selina Meyer: our official Ringer 2016 Fictional Presidential Ticket. It’s the ticket we want — and the ticket we deserve.