What Benefits Can Be Derived From a Doomed Presidential Quest?

by Michael Dorf

With the list of announced and unannounced-but-likely candidates for the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination at around 20, it is now the season to mock the seemingly delusional aspirants--as in this hilarious bit by Jon Stewart going after Lincoln Chafee's metric platform and Rick Perry's non-oops-and-now-smart-with-glasses platform. Why are there so many candidates who have no realistic chance of capturing their respective nominations? Presumably because running for president is a way of getting things besides the nomination. Here I'm going to list all of the things I can think of. Readers are invited to add anything I missed in the comments.

(1) You never know. Even if there's a clear front-runner, it's always possible that the front-runner will stumble in some way. This approach seems sounder on the Democratic side than on the Republican side, simply because there are so many fewer Democratic candidates. If a video emerges of Hillary Clinton killing and eating human babies (the sort of scandal that would be needed to derail her candidacy), that will create an opening for someone like Chafee, Martin O'Malley, or Bernie Sanders to jump in. The thinking has to be that the stumble would occur too late for more of an "A list" candidate to throw a hat in the ring, so that even a distant runner-up would have an advantage over, say, a late-arriving Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren. On the Republican side, the thinking would have to be even more delusional for, say, George Pataki. It would take about a dozen Republican presidential candidate killing-and-eating-human-baby videos for Pataki to have a shot.

(2) Judgment is clouded by ego. People who are prominent enough to run for president have had lots of success in their lives. For example, Carly Fiorina was a very successful business executive--to be sure, not in the sense of maximizing shareholder value or benefiting the workers employed by the companies she oversaw but in the sense that counts for her, making a lot of money. The fact that her wealth did not translate into political success in her effort to represent California in the Senate would make a regular person think "maybe I'm not cut out for politics," but Fiorina concluded she wasn't thinking big enough and so she's running for president. Fiorina's candidacy also has a bit of the snobbery that people in other fields have with respect to politics, but she's outshone in that category by Dr. Ben Carson, whose attitude towards politics is "well it's not brain surgery, and I'm good at that." Even the professional politicians are susceptible to this sort of delusional thinking. Bernie Sanders doesn't understand that what made for political success in Vermont could win him Ithaca, Berkeley, and a few other college towns, but not the rest of the country. Etc.

(3) Move the eventual nominee towards the base. For Sanders and some of the Republicans, however, there is another possibility. To beat back whatever threat Sanders poses, Clinton might have to move to the left. Likewise, Rand Paul's candidacy, to the extent that it gains traction, could tug the eventual Republican nominee in a more libertarian direction. Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the candidate must be plausible enough to primary voters to get the frontrunners' attention.

(4) Publicize an issue. The great Richard Hofstadter famously wrote that in the U.S. "third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die." Given Duverger's Law, long-term the U.S. will have two major parties. Very occasionally a third party supplants a major one. (Any Whigs around? Federalists?). But in the last 150 years or so, third parties only ever at most arise to bring publicity to an issue. If the issue resonates, it gets co-opted by one or both of the major parties. The most recent example is Ross Perot, whose 1992 campaign helped to make deficit reduction a priority of the Clinton Administration. The "bee" phenomenon can also operate within a party's nominating contest. Maybe Chafee's metric manifesto will lead Clinton to champion metric conversion in the general. (Or maybe not.) Depending on the issue, this kind of campaign can substantially overlap with (3).

(5) Get the VP nomination or a plum cabinet position. A strong but ultimately unsuccessful primary campaign can gain the candidate a spot as the nominee's running mate or some other powerful position in the administration. Even being the vice presidential nominee can then be a boost to the candidate in the next presidential election, so despite the fact that the last VP to become president was George H.W. Bush in 1988, the VP spot and a few cabinet positions (especially Secretary of State) are very valuable politically.

(6) Cash in by selling a book and/or hosting a FoxNews show. Some campaigns are inexplicable as politics and so must be seen as something else. Lately, that something else might be money. An unsuccesful Republican candidate who lacks a political job to fall back on has a decent shot at a slot as a talk-show host on FoxNews. These days, nearly every candidate has a book. Conventionally, the book is seen as serving the campaign but for a marginal candidate, perhaps the campaign is a way to sell the book.

(7) Have fun. I've never run for president but I imagine that it's a mix of exhaustion, drudgery, fear, and exhiliration. There are very few really successful candidates for whom the exhiliration is the dominant component of that mix--Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the only ones who come to mind--but if you have no real chance of winning, perhaps running for president is a whole lot of fun. In recent years, the two candidates who seem to fall into this category are Mike Gravel--seen here in his 2008 campaign ad staring into the camera, throwing a rock into a pond, and then slowly walking into the distance--and Herman Cain--whose feces-eating grin at the end of this 2012 ad featuring his chief of staff endorsing him then smoking, led me and a lot of other people to conclude that Cain was toying with us for his own amusement. At this point, we can only wonder which of the candidates is in it for a goof, but it is already clear that in failing to elect Cain the last time, we may have doomed the Earth and its inhabitants, as John Oliver revealed: