Note: I wrote the original draft of this post a few months ago, with a much greater emphasis on the possibility of EA collectively choosing their own candidate to run for president and putting funding behind them in some official capacity. Since then, I've significantly updated towards the belief that EA as an organization should be politically neutral, and I've changed the post accordingly. However, I still think that running for office and attracting individual EA-minded donors could be a high-impact option.

Introduction

In this post, I will explore whether it would be a good idea for a highly EA-aligned person to run for president, as well as the potential implications of this scenario. Because such a candidate could have a very high positive global impact in expectation, running for president might be a favorable option for some EAs, and funding an EA-aligned candidate could be a good investment for individual altruistic donors. I've seen the possibility of an EA becoming a major world leader mentioned before,[1] but I haven't found any in-depth discussion on the costs and benefits of this path and how it might fit into the EA funding landscape.

Having a president who sympathizes with the EA philosophy would be a huge win - I don't think it would be an overstatement to say they would have an opportunity to make significant inroads into every EA cause area. They could do this by passing laws, handling international relations, and influencing the allocation of funds. If nothing else, they could make an astounding positive impact just by raising awareness about neglected EA causes through the bully pulpit. Figuring out what specific actions should be taken deserves more consideration, but for now, I will just carry on with the assumption that a U.S. president would have the power to make an extraordinarily high positive impact.

Disclaimer: I am not a political scientist; I'm just a person who decided to do some cursory research and speculation about the U.S. presidential election process. If this post gains enough traction, I'd be interested to see a follow-up analysis by someone with more knowledge on the subject.

Also, this post will specifically be about electing a U.S. president, since that's what I'm most familiar with. It seems like it would be just as worth thinking about the equivalent in other countries, i.e. the prime minister of the U.K. Similar considerations could also be made for less-influential figures, such as senators or representatives, though the EV of running for these positions seems lower to me.

Funding

Due to our current surplus of funding, EAs have been discussing the possibility of "megaprojects," or highly-impactful projects that can scale up to using vast amounts of money effectively. Although I believe that funding a presidential candidate in an official capacity (i.e. through a grant by OpenPhil) would be bad for the cohesion of the movement (as I'll discuss later), individual donors may be able to make a significant impact by funding a highly EA-aligned candidate.

A presidential campaign can eat up lots of money. On the upper end of the spectrum, Joe Biden's campaign raised $1 billion, the most ever raised for a campaign by donors. (Michael Bloomberg's campaign spent $1.1 billion, but he funded it completely out-of-pocket.[2]) If spending lots of money is your goal, funding such a campaign certainly seems like a surefire method to do that.

On the other hand, spending that much money is also not required - it seems like a compelling candidate can gain popularity even with less funding. Bernie Sanders was expected to win over Biden at one point, and his campaign only collected $211 million.[3] Andrew Yang was a complete unknown at the start of the 2020 race, and he managed to reach around 5% in the polls at the peak of his campaign with only $41 million of total funding.[4][5]

EA's total committed funding is estimated to be $46.1 billion, plus or minus $10 billion. To make a very conservative estimate, let's assume that we actually have $36.1 billion committed, and despite the additional publicity, absolutely no one besides the current committed EA donors decides to fund the campaign. Let's also assume that we need Joe Biden's level of funding (again, the most ever raised for a U.S. political campaign in history) in order to win the election. This would come out to 2.8% of our current funding commitment.

This is probably a gross overestimate of the amount we would need. For one thing, a presidential campaign is highly visible and can attract a lot of new donors. Even EAs who aren't in the habit of donating - myself included - would probably be more likely to reach for their wallets if they see a concrete goal with a deadline, like winning a presidential election. Finally, funding isn't everything - if the candidate has a compelling vision that breaks from the norm and excites people, they can become popular from mostly "grassroots" support. I think the kinds of issues brought forward by EA are compelling and could activate a lot of voters, even if we can't buy an ad before every YouTube video. I'll reiterate that Bernie Sanders, who's generally been labeled as a break from the establishment,[6] nearly won the Democratic nomination with only 0.46% of EA's total funding commitment.

On the other hand, we can expect that most people who routinely donate to EA causes will still (understandably) be wary of funding a political candidate. Political campaigns likely seem much less unambiguously positive-impact than nonprofits, especially for those who disagree with some of the candidate's views.

Finally, there are laws about political donations to consider. According to the Wikipedia article on campaign finance in the U.S., an individual cannot give more than $2,800 to a candidate committee during a single election. However, there are ways to get around this limit through mechanisms like Super PACs, which can fund their own political ads as long as they don't coordinate directly with the candidate.[7][8] Foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to presidential campaigns, whether through a PAC or otherwise, eliminating a large chunk of potential EA donors.[9]

However, some EAs' reluctance or inability to donate to a presidential candidate might be offset by others who anticipate this and compensate by donating a larger share than they otherwise would have.

Connecting candidates to donors

Even if there are EA-aligned candidates and donors who would be willing to fund them, it is unclear how candidates should publicize themselves in the EA community, and to what extent different EA donors should try to coordinate with each other.

The obvious solution is for would-be candidates to proclaim their presidential run loudly in EA community spaces. However, if talking about and promoting any given candidate becomes common in EA, discussion is more likely to devolve into emotionally-charged arguments about politics. In fact, the EA Forum specifically prohibits posts promoting individual politicians from the frontpage for this reason.[10] A particularly worrying failure case would be for EA and the candidate to become so fundamentally linked in the eyes of the EA community that support of the candidate becomes nearly synonymous with being an effective altruist. Even if the candidate is extremely aligned with core EA views, linking EA inseparably to a single politician could make it more set in its ways, less tolerant of dissenting opinions, and discouraging for new members whose views differ from the candidate's.

Publicly portraying the candidate as a strong supporter of EA could cause negative externalities outside of the EA community as well. It seems like it would be imprudent for somebody to openly market themselves as "the EA candidate." If they become a popular contender for president later, the news media would likely pick up on their obvious early ties to effective altruism and start covering EA in a way that we can't control, possibly including abundant references to The Terminator.

In order to avoid this, maybe aspiring EA presidential candidates should start by privately soliciting donations from a few individual donors who have been known to support EA, as well as some who haven't, rather than immediately appealing to the EA community at large. We can expect that any candidate with an EA-style campaign who gains significant traction will become well-known in the community soon enough, but this way, we can hopefully avoid the above failure cases.

I'll note that I'm especially unsure how best to balance the benefits of EA's continued political neutrality and the vast gains that might be realized by an EA president.  It could be that I'm overstating the possible negative effects of an EA running for president, or in the opposite direction, that trying to secure funding for a political campaign from EA donors is simply an unworkable or inadvisable idea.

Which party should the candidate run under?

The main consideration when determining what party to run under should probably be the views of the candidate, but I'll give some consideration into how the party a candidate runs under would play into EA's core set of causes and demographics, since this choice could affect many aspects of the campaign.

Independent

Nominating a candidate as a political independent might be most in line with the EA movement's actual stance. However, my initial impression is that political independents in American elections are not often viable candidates. I could very well be overly pessimistic about this; Ross Perot, the most successful third-party candidate ever, received 18.91% of the popular vote in the 1992 election with only $60 million spent.[11] There is also some reason to believe that Americans would be receptive to a third-party candidate right now - the percentage of political independents in the U.S. has been trending upwards.[12] Another reason for concern is the risk of splitting the vote and causing Donald Trump or someone with similarly anti-democratic tendencies to be elected to office.

There is a new political party started by Andrew Yang, called the Forward Party, which seems vaguely EA-aligned. They plan to support candidates of all parties for now, including independents, but may hold their own primary process for a presidential candidate in 2024.[13] The probability of the Forward Party playing a significant role in the 2024 election seems low, but it could be worth keeping an eye on. A 80,000 Hours podcast episode with Andrew Yang discusses this new party and its plans in more depth.[14]

Democratic

If a prospective EA candidate had to pick one of the two major U.S. political parties, the Democratic party seems to me like the obvious choice. In the 2019 EA Survey, 72% of EAs identified themselves as Left or Center Left, with only 3.4% identifying as Right or Center Right.[15]

Even so, it doesn't seem that most EA views are clearly associated with those of typical American Democrats. EA does generally advocate preventing extreme climate change, and I've also seen promotion of immigration reform as a cause area,[16] but for the most part, we tend to talk about things that aren't often brought up in mainstream American politics. I don't believe an EA would necessarily have to run as a Democrat.

Republican

The main advantage here might be that a Republican candidate could run sooner than a Democrat, since Joe Biden will most likely be put forth automatically as the 2024 candidate of the Democratic Party. Still, given the recent changes to the Republican party's base under Donald Trump, their position seems pretty antithetical to many of EA's priorities.

Since I lean liberal myself, I'm biased here, so I'd be happy to see arguments that a Republican EA candidate would be viable.

Platform

What should the candidate's platform focus on?

Core EA causes

Although I believe they are important causes, I'm unsure as to whether emphases on alleviating global poverty or improving animal welfare would be compelling to the average voter. Appealing solely to voters' sense of altruism without offering them any personal benefit is a pretty nontraditional approach. Although promoting justice for minority groups to people who are not members of those groups has been effective in the past, I'm not sure how easily this can be extended to animals and people overseas, who are not even participants in American elections.

I weakly expect that longtermist causes would be more compelling as part of a candidate's central political platform, since some people in the long term future may in fact be American citizens. These also slot neatly into the political rhetoric about climate change, which has proven to be compelling to many voters.

Besides this, the president can have an influence on just about every EA cause, though the extent to which each cause should be emphasized is still up for debate. The president would be uniquely qualified to tackle issues relating to making the American political system more effective, such as voting reform or eliminating the filibuster.

Other causes

An EA-aligned candidate should probably have a unique platform that goes beyond just the standard EA talking points. This can help them appeal to a wider range of voters and decreases the risk of the candidate's views becoming "nearly synonymous" with EA. (Of course, the candidate should avoid any really crazy policies that would drive off a majority of EAs.)

As an example, I haven't seen Universal Basic Income (UBI) discussed extensively in EA, but at least some EAs seem to consider it a serious option.[17] Any serious candidates who support UBI are also likely to be endorsed by Andrew Yang (and his "Forward Party" mentioned above). In the Democratic primary, after dropping out himself, Yang stated that if either Biden or Sanders supported UBI, it would "go a long way" towards getting his endorsement.[18] Although I don't consider Yang to be an ideal candidate, I believe that his base overlaps substantially with that of EA, so getting his endorsement would be a significant boost. UBI also would give less-altruistically minded voters a reason to vote for this candidate that benefits them personally (free money!).

More about downsides

Even if we successfully avoid directly associating the candidate with EA, as discussed previously, introducing so many people to neglected EA causes like AI risk, biorisk, and animal welfare for the first time may cause negative shifts in public opinion that would be difficult to reverse.

Polarization

I believe that one of the main risks of an EA presidential candidate is the political polarization of EA causes. If EA causes are associated with politics in any way, they seem much more likely to engender either intense allegiance or intense hate from members of the general public. For instance, many people who are introduced in passing to existential risks from bioterrorism may think, "It seems unlikely that human civilization could really be wiped out by a pandemic, and I don't see why anyone would want to make a pathogen like that on purpose. But if some people think that's an important problem, I don't mind if they work on it." However, if biorisk is presented in association with a political candidate, people will probably be likely to view it with much more suspicion. In particular, they will be likely to form an immediate negative impression if the candidate is competing with a candidate of their own political party. This negative first impression is unlikely to be entirely reversed for most people. [19]

To avoid this, campaign materials could focus somewhat more on EA's less neglected cause areas that are already mainstream political issues, such as global warming. Then, the president could help advance work on other causes more quietly once they are already in office. This isn't to say that any mention of these causes should be omitted from campaign materials. The candidate should avoid appearing deceptive - if they are primarily motivated to work on certain causes but don't mention them in their campaigning whatsoever, the news media could find this out and portray it to their audiences in a negative light.

Low fidelity messaging

This is closely related to the previous point, but I'd like to more directly address an issue that is pretty inherent to political campaigning - it is difficult to transmit a message to the public in a high-fidelity way. [20]

Most news media relies on blazingly short soundbites and tends to emphasize scandal and controversy. In this sense, running a presidential candidate on an EA-inspired platform is the absolute last thing you would want to do if you care about avoiding conveying distorted ideas about EA causes to the general public. Andrew Yang particularly suffered from this problem, but was able to sidestep sensationalist media to some degree by appearing on several long-form podcasts, where he was able to convey his ideas with more nuance.[21]

High risk of failure

Another possible downside is the high risk of spending hundreds of millions of dollars only to lose the election. Such a loss may even cause many people to view people who support EA causes in a negative light afterwards - once our candidate loses once, they and their causes would always be perceived as "losers." Still, I'd tend to think any such perception would be offset by the shift in the Overton window caused by having a high-profile candidate who espouses many previously unheard-of policies.

What to do now

Naturally, please comment below to point out any misconceptions, inaccuracies, or unwise recommendations in this post; it's possible that there are quite a lot of them.

I'd encourage any politically-inclined readers to try considering what steps it would take to make a successful run for president. For instance, running for a smaller political office seems like a highly effective option to gain experience, qualifications, and knowledge about your personal fit for being president.

For potential donors, this idea may not be especially easy to act on right now, with it being 3 years until the next presidential election (or U.K. general election), and 7 years until the next election in which the U.S. Democratic field will be open to new candidates (if funding a Democratic candidate seems like the most viable option to you). Still, you might try to keep an eye out for qualified, EA-aligned candidates in the early days of the election season.

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     For instance, considering the small probability of becoming prime minister of the U.K. was used as an example of expected value in the book Doing Good Better.

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    In some sense, the loopholes that allow "Big Money" to have an outsized influence on politics seem unfair and bad for democracy, but maybe an EA president could finally get them fixed.

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    See the Awareness/Inclination Model by Owen Cotton-Barratt - while awareness of the causes would greatly increase, their inclination would likely become strongly positive or strongly negative for many people.

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:44 PM
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There's at least one EA running for Congress right now, and 80k has analyzed that as a potential career path. I think for the Presidency most of the same analysis would apply; just change the numbers. https://80000hours.org/2015/07/what-are-your-odds-of-getting-into-congress-if-you-try/

 

Also, the best analysis of political issues I've seen from an EA perspective is https://happinesspolitics.org/platform.html so you could use their issue weightings to do somewhat more in depth analysis than 80k did. 

I'd also highlight this post for anyone with an interest in getting behind EA candidates. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/FffuQRBYjvm5hiaFw/there-s-a-role-for-small-ea-donors-in-campaign-finance

Some points:

 - I'm pretty sure an EA president can do more significant things than moving budget funding towards EA causes (although I agree moving funding alone is huge). This'll matter when quantifying the benefit.

 - You haven't analysed much about what it actually takes to become president - more analysis of that is probably needed. I doubt funding + having the right political stance are anywhere close to enough. This'll matter when quantifying the cost.

You need to increase the probability of success to a level such that it is worth funding this (cost-benefit wise), this requires deeper understanding of what drives success.

What about running both a Democrat and a Republican, and going for a bipartisan presidential ticket? This can be made clear from the start that they're going for a bipartisan ticket.

I don't know if someone has posted this before, but would be good to compare this to the idea of running for other political offices. For example, maybe a lot could be achieved as a senator or representative rather than as president and those seem easier jobs to get.

How much would this apply to running for office in general? Even though most elected officials are less influential and powerful than the US president, running for mayor, congress, senate, etc., could still draw attention and funding to EA causes, and the odds of winning the election are probably higher.

The Forward Party seems really cool. I wonder if it has chances in the long-term.