The Rhino Who Won an Election by a Landslide

With two of the most unpopular candidates ever, many voters are weighing a protest vote or staying home. Citizens of São Paulo once took a different approach—and elected an animal.

As the day approaches to choose between America’s two historically unpopular major party nominees, some Americans still seek an alternative.

Perhaps America’s unhappy undecideds should learn from history and write-in a Rhino: no, not a Republican in Name Only, a real rhinoceros like Cacareco. She charged ahead of a crowded field in the Sao Paolo City Council elections in 1959, earning “one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s recent history,” The New York Times reported.

A serious impulse triggered this Brazilian charade. On October 8, 1959 in Sao Paolo, sewers were overflowing, prices were soaring, supplies of meat, beans, and voter patience were dwindling. Dismayed by the 540 candidates running for 45 council seats, some students decided, “Better elect a rhinoceros than an ass.”

This wasn’t just any two-horned, two-tonned, four-year-old black rhino – who weighed about as much as all 45 council members. This was a local celeb, Cacareco, Portuguese for rubbish. A carpetbagger from Rio, she came to help open the new Sao Paolo zoo, until some Rio newspapers demanded her return. The publicity inspired the disgruntled students, who printed 200,000 paper ballots endorsing Cacareco’s candidacy. “She’s an ugly beast, very stupid” said the Rio zoo director, displaying a candor few so close to a candidate ever exhibit. “You could put her brain in a Brazil nut.”

One candidate found losing to a beast so humiliating, he shot himself. “It was just a spontaneous whim,” a beaten party leader muttered. “A ridiculous vote for a ridiculous rhinoceros. Nowhere, and never before, have 100,000 literate adult voters cast their ballots for a silent, absent, and nut brained quadruped, Diceros bicornis.”

Actually, there’s a rich history of voting for non-humans to protest inhuman electoral choices.  Four years before Cacareco’s triumph, Smelly the Goat beat out a bunch of stinky pols in Jaboatao, Pernambuco, also in Brazil. In ancient times, Incitatus the horse served as Consul of Rome – at Caligula’s pleasure. Since then, Bosco the Dog, was elected mayor of Sunol, California. Macaco Tiao the Chimp ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Dustin the Turkey wooed Irish voters for president. Billy Gumboot the Goat became president of Whangamomona, New Zealand. Pigasus the Immortal was the Yippie nominee for president. Stubbs the Cat has served Talkeetna, Alaska, as mayor since 1997.

Stubbs was the running mate of the famously finicky Morris the cat of 9Lives who ran for president in 1988. Like Donald Trump, Morris invaded politics from his perch as pitchman, er pitch-cat. At Morris’s campaign launch, former Vice President Walter Mondale’s daughter, Eleanor Mondale, proclaimed: “May I introduce a candidate with the quiet demeanor of a Coolidge, the animal magnetism of a Kennedy… a candidate who may shed but will never shred, a candidate who stands four square behind the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of din-din.” Regarding the Iran-Contra mess, Morris’s spokeswoman insisted: “Any cat would have smelled a rat.” Morris began that campaign enjoying 70 percent name recognition, higher than any rival except George H. W. Bush.

My favorite critter candidate was animated: in 1968 Snoopy ran for president, with a stirring campaign song sung by The Royal Guardsmen of “Snoopy and the Red Baron” fame: “Some wear the sign of the elephant and some wear the sign of the mule. But we’ll hold the sign of the beagle high and love will shine right through.” In this satirical ballad, the election – clearly rigged – ends with Snoopy short one vote. His savior, the dreaded “Red Baron,” mutters: “Mein Friend, we meet again!”

For all the idiocy surrounding this critique of dog-eat-dog politics, a Brazilian sociologist recognized Cacareco’s election as “a severe criticism of the regime,” fearing “We are on the threshold of revolt.”  One hundred thousand citizens  –15 percent of the voters — wrote in a rhino’s name, beating the runner up by about 90,000 votes. As officials invalidated Cacareco’s candidacy, they recognized the deep frustration with the system expressed. Thousands of people simply filled their ballot envelopes with black beans to protest.

Sometimes, the system misfires with ghoulish results. Over the years, plane crashes shortly before Election Day with no time left to find replacement candidates or reprint ballots elected one dead Senator and re-elected four dead members of Congress (who were then replaced). Less tragically, comedians’ mock campaigns lovingly skewered political doubletalk. In 1928, Will Rogers’ “anti-bunk” campaign, promised “We will not only give the farmer relief, we will cure him of being a farmer.” In 1940, Gracie Allen ran, representing The Surprise Party. She boasted of our national debt – “it’s the biggest in the world” – yet wondered if she would recognize Russia, saying: “I don’t know. I meet so many people….” In 1968, Pat Paulsen launched the first of five presidential runs, with the slogans: ”We Cannot Stand Pat,” and ”We Can Be Decisive, Probably.” And Stephen Colbert positioning for 2008, ran as “Just an average Joe like you – if you have a TV show.”

While the Morris the Cat run was equally facetious, the Cacareco campaign stirred something ominous. Cacareco became the most famous beastly substitute because her candidacy was particularly successful and biting. “Voto Cacareco” now means protest vote in Brazil.

Dissatisfaction with politics and politicians is as rife in democracies as repression is in dictatorships. Our high expectations of leaders, combined with the low intrigues we often respond to as voters, doom us to perpetual disappointments. But some choices are worse than others (see Election, American presidential, 2016), with some protests harsher than others.

Americans’ faith in the federal government is “at historically low levels,” pollsters report, with “Only 19% of Americans today saying they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3%) or ‘most of the time’ (16%).” While a desire to “Voto Cacareco” is natural, sometimes the anger curdles. Such fury threatens democracy’s credibility even more than Donald Trump’s unpatriotic assaults on the electoral process. Trump’s comments have triggered the backlash they deserve. But this tumultuous campaign, and Trump’s ascent, represent a steady drip-drip-drip seepage of faith in American democracy.

Such an outflow endangers our democracy, which ultimately relies on trust and goodwill. It represents a stunning failure of Barack Obama’s presidency – and his Republican rivals. And it offers a daunting challenge the next President should address – but probably won’t.