Even a losing presidential campaign can have benefits

Why the also-rans also ran.

February 15, 2024, 2:53 PM

There comes a time in every presidential primary season when the number of candidates who have suspended their campaigns eclipses those still running. This year, we hit that point in January, and it's all but a foregone conclusion at this point that 2024 will be a rematch of 2020.

You may find yourself wondering, what was the point of it all? Why did so many serious politicians (read: not the fringe candidates) spend all the time, energy and money to run a presidential campaign when they were probably never going to win a popularity contest with former President Donald Trump among Republican voters?

While there are very real costs and even risks associated with a presidential run, there are also a lot of benefits, even if you lose: better job opportunities, increased public profiles and the chance to build up a war chest for the next run. Let's break down what some of those benefits look like to help understand why also-rans also run.

The national stage brings a spotlight …

One intuitive benefit to a presidential bid is the boost it can give to one's public profile. Simply announcing a run isn't enough to raise one's profile, but many competitive campaigns eventually lead to an increase in name recognition. Take a look at how the share of Americans who had an opinion (either favorable or unfavorable) of each major Republican ex-candidate for president changed in the months after they announced their campaign:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis already had a significant public profile as the governor of a politically important state whose controversial agenda — such as lifting COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic and ushering in a slate of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation — garnered international attention. As a result, his presidential bid didn't significantly raise his name recognition among U.S. adults. At this time last year, the percent of Americans who had an opinion on DeSantis hovered around 80 percent. By the time he suspended his campaign, it was about the same.

But for someone like Vivek Ramaswamy, who was a little-known businessman prior to his run, the campaign launched him into the spotlight. In the early days of his campaign, just about a third of Americans had an opinion on Ramaswamy. By the time he dropped out last month, almost two-thirds did.

"Candidates can run to stay relevant and keep their name out there, increase their name recognition, promote their own brand and increase their popularity," said Caitlin Jewitt, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

This effect can be even more pronounced among members of the candidates' own party, who were likely paying even closer attention to the primary race:

Name recognition isn't always a good thing; sometimes politicians become known for a blunder that the candidate might prefer the public forget (the Dean scream, anyone?). But for a campaign that otherwise goes smoothly, a candidate's newfound celebrity can bolster their future political ambitions or lead to other job opportunities.

"It may be that it is a specific audition for a particular position or even for the vice presidency: If you want to be vice president, running gets your name onto the shortlist," said Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

An obvious example that sprang to mind for both Noel and Jewitt was former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who ran for president in 2020 and is now President Joe Biden's secretary of transportation. It's hard to imagine the mayor of a mid-sized city catapulting to the Cabinet without Buttigieg's frisky presidential run elevating his status. Even if a Cabinet seat is out of reach, it's not uncommon for also-rans to transform into pundits once their campaign is over. For instance, after running unsuccessfully for president in 2016, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joined ABC News as a contributor.

Of course, it can be a risky endeavor, as losing a presidential primary naturally means candidates are running against the eventual nominee. The longer former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has stayed in the Republican primary, the more explicit her attacks on Trump have become, making it less and less likely that he'd be willing to offer her a similar gig were he to become president again.

… And plenty of cash

Presidential campaigns are expensive, so any semi-serious candidate needs to rake in a small fortune to get things off the ground. While front-runners gather tens of millions of dollars in donations, even smaller campaigns can accumulate a decent war chest. Former Rep. Will Hurd, whose campaign in the GOP primary lasted just 15 weeks, totaled close to $1.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

While much of that cash gets spent, y'know, running for president, it's not uncommon to have a stash left over, particularly if a candidate raised money well and dropped out at an opportune time. There are limited avenues for candidates to spend cash that isn't used during a campaign, but one of them is for a future run — for any federal office.

It can also be a way to shift party priorities

Losing a presidential campaign can serve other goals, even if it doesn't lead to a cushy gig after the election. In running for president, candidates have an opportunity to present and gauge voter support for different issues and policy positions. Even if they ultimately lose, if they pull enough voter support in early primaries, it can be a signal to party brass that these issues need to be taken seriously.

Were former Secretary of State Hillary "Clinton or Biden going to choose [Sen.] Bernie Sanders as the VP? Probably not, because they spent a lot of time clashing with each other," Noel said. "Probably what Bernie Sanders was doing was saying, 'I'm going to come out here and establish that there is a significant wing of the Democratic Party that wants far more aggressive, bold, liberal, progressive policies.' And then both Clinton and Biden are like, 'OK, well, I need to reach out to those voters when I craft my platform.'"

This could be the strategy that some of the never-Trump Republican candidates, like Christie, were deploying as well, hoping to demonstrate that the former president's stranglehold on the GOP isn't absolute and that there are still some Republican voters who prefer a more temperate approach. Whether that strategy has been successful, however, is a matter of debate.

Don't underestimate how delulu a candidate can be

It's tricky to quantify the reasons why otherwise serious candidates run in races it seems obvious they won't win. No politician is going to admit they know they don't have a shot and are just angling for some of the benefits outlined above. But it's also fairly safe to assume that many candidates run because they actually do think they can win. Even if a candidate starts out with more modest goals, the campaign itself can start inspiring them to dream bigger, Noel said. "You get introduced to audiences enough as the next president of the United States, and you start hearing people talk about that, then you're like, 'Well, maybe I could do this — maybe this will work,'" he said.

And, at least in the modern age of primaries, it's not completely delusional. After all, we don't have to cast our mind back too many elections to think of a dark horse candidate, who many people didn't think stood a chance, ending up winning not only his party's nomination, but the presidential contest itself. And Trump isn't the first candidate to pull off such a surprise victory — think of former Presidents Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter. If there's one thing a presidential candidate can do, it's dare to dream.

"You have to have a certain level of confidence in and belief of your own potential to do this at all," Noel said.