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Sorry, your cat won't be president; even the best-performing write-in candidates barely have a shot

Utah independent earned 34K votes in Ohio, Ky.
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-06 07:00:09-05

CINCINNATI -- Ohio and Kentucky, your next president is Evan McMullin.

That is, if there were such a thing as president of Ohio and Kentucky. And if Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson and all other party-affiliated candidates were OK with it. And assuming McMullin, a Utah independent, would take the job.

Donald Trump may have won the presidency through the Electoral College and Hillary Clinton the popular vote consolation prize, but when it comes to certified write-in also-rans, McMullin was the winner in a landslide (perhaps a small piece of land, but you understand).

And who knows -- with a recount pending in three states where Trump’s margin of victory was small, not to mention the very real presence of election fatigue, McMullin’s stock may yet rise.

Neither Ohio nor Kentucky recognizes uncertified write-ins, so that vote for your barista or your cat or yourself was, although probably satisfying on some level, wasted effort. There were 18 certified write-in candidates in Ohio and 25 in Kentucky. All write-ins in Ohio collected at least several votes, but two pairs in Kentucky got zero.

McMullin racked up 22,780 votes (1.2 percent) in Kentucky, with 7,181 coming from Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. In Ohio, he tallied 11,915, or 0.2 percent, of which 2,390 came from Butler, Hamilton and Warren counties.

But before "Hail to the Chief" begins wafting through the minds of McMullin and his supporters, consider that those who voted for an uncertified write-in numbered 1,042 in Warren County and 1,115 in Butler County. Those counties were the only ones in the region reporting “invalid" write-ins. That means that, given a choice beyond the big names and the certified write-ins, "other" as a singular entity would’ve crushed McMullin, if you extrapolate statewide from those counties' numbers.

Still, who is Evan McMullin? He’s a 40-year-old Mormon who toes the line with conservatives on most issues but was a vocal critic of Trump’s candidacy. His government experience came as a policy adviser with the House foreign relations committee. His best showing was in his home state, where he collected 21.8 percent of the vote -- possibly because he appealed to a conservative voter base that did not feel Trump could embody its moral values.

However, history tells us that an actual victory by someone like McMullin just doesn’t happen, said Stephen Voss, University of Kentucky associate professor of political science.

"Write-in candidates work best when the candidate already enjoys high name recognition and can take advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with the current office holder," Voss said. "Sometimes a primary electorate has preferences so far from the wishes of the average citizen that voters will use the write-in option to undo the damage. The write-in process never, or at least almost never, functions as part of the usual process in which voters shop for candidates."

He brought up the case of current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a known figure long before he swept into office through a write-in campaign in the primaries and then won a mayoral run-off, as well as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who fell in the Republican primary to a tea party candidate only to run as a write-in and retain her seat.