In a 2016 race for president of the United States that has had no shortage of characters, a Westerville man is hoping a grassroots movement, a classroom lesson and an excellent beard are enough to make waves.

In a 2016 race for president of the United States that has had no shortage of characters, a Westerville man is hoping a grassroots movement, a classroom lesson and an excellent beard are enough to make waves.

Ben Hartnell's style is at odds with his substance.

For public appearances, the 38-year-old wears an American-flag ensemble, complete with "America" sunglasses and a star-spangled cowboy hat. Even with such attire, his foot-long beard remains the focal point.

But his campaign for president -- along with the "Elect the Beard" motto -- is far from a joke.

Hartnell, an American history teacher at Westerville North High School, is using the campaign as a lengthy and hands-on teaching tool for his students.

"I thought this would be a unique way to teach kids about elections," he said.

The process began in 2011, when Hartnell's homeroom class sold "Fear the Beard" T-shirts to raise money for Westerville volunteer organization Caring and Sharing. Sales went well, raising around $5,000 for the organization.

The next year, Hartnell was looking for a new challenge when he realized he could capitalize on the looming presidential race.

"I said (to the class), 'Guys, I turn 35 in October. That's old enough to run for president,' " he said.

So Hartnell and his students put together a last-minute campaign to garner as many write-in votes as he could, ending up with around 30 official votes in what he expected would be a one-time experiment.

Four years later, the freshmen who helped spread the word about Hartnell's campaign are now seniors, and make up the army of volunteers that powers the movement to make a more serious run than in 2012.

Even school administrators are behind the idea.

Assistant Principal Stephanie McGeorge said that in the context of Hartnell's style -- he often comes to school in a historical costume -- the campaign "doesn't surprise me all that much."

"We're pretty used to his extreme ideas for projects, and we're pretty comfortable with when he says he's going to do something, it comes to fruition," she said. "He doesn't idly say something and then it fizzles away. When he says there's something going on in his head for an idea, it's 100 percent."

Early in the process, Hartnell and his students realized putting his name on the ballot wouldn't be feasible. The next-best alternative was to be an official write-in candidate, providing one of the best political-process lessons for Hartnell's students.

"In a lot of these states, it doesn't even seem like they know the procedure for a serious write-in candidate," he said with a laugh. "I would love to know when was the last time Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton ever had to fill out paperwork like this."

Thus far, Hartnell is an official write-in candidate in 12 states, including Ohio. His campaign has submitted paperwork for nine more states and will compile another four by their deadlines. Nine states it's encountered do not allow write-in candidates at all.

As the campaign corresponds with offices throughout the country, Hartnell fills in his students.

"In a traditional lesson plan, you say, 'Here's the 2016 election.' You have Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, maybe go over some of the third-party candidates and that's about the end of it," he said. "With this, we can check in every Friday. And as letters (from states) come in, things update and I let them know. I think it makes it as legitimate as possible."

Hartnell's running mate is his cousin, Dave Marshall, who lives in Michigan. The pair are running as members of the "Harty Party," a nod to Hartnell's last name and a running joke.

Their platform is fluid. On the campaign website, a poll asks would-be voters to tally their policy preferences, and Hartnell said he'll stick to how his voters feel.

He's not sure of how many votes he'll receive in November, but hopes to gain momentum with his own "convention" and a number of campaign events throughout the fall.

"It's hard to put a number on (expectations)," he said. "In the back of your mind, you think, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had enough to get an actual percentage?' Not just like nine votes."

He knows he won't win, but picking up a mention -- especially a negative one -- from his competitors would be an excellent consolation prize.

"What I really want is to get enough ground game going or buzz created that Trump or Clinton makes an offhand remark about me," he said with a laugh. "Ideally, I want to get insulted by Trump. Maybe he'll call me 'Hobo Ben' or something because of the beard -- like Crooked Hillary."

He's 12 years away from voting, but Hartnell's 6-year-old son, Fraser, supports his dad. He said he'd like to have former WWE wrestler John Cena as his bodyguard, and expects to use Abraham Lincoln's former bedroom as his own. He plans to make his own presidential run in 30 years.

When asked why would his dad be an excellent president, Fraser didn't hesitate.

"He's got a good beard," he said with a smile.

For Hartnell, the process of running for president always has been more about teaching his students than actually receiving votes. But he admitted that as he's built a following, it's been more fun to think about the votes he might see Nov. 8.

In the midst of one the craziest elections season he can remember, he wonders why he can't benefit.

"If you know who I am and you know the kind of energy I bring to the classroom, I think you could say, 'Yeah, I'll vote for that guy,' " he said.

For more information on Hartnell and his campaign, visit electthebeard.com.

@ThisWeekAndrew