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Why long-shot candidates reach for the Holy Grail of higher office

Jimmy Carter was a long shot who won the White House. United States Air Force, ID DF-SC-83-0126

Why long-shot candidates reach for the Holy Grail of higher office

Jimmy Carter was a long shot who won the White House. United States Air Force, ID DF-SC-83-0126

This last week has seen the entry of three new candidates into the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination. By any standard the nomination of either Dr Ben Carson, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina or former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee is extremely unlikely.

And, yet, they run. What are the motivations of long-shot candidates to enter the race?

The answer, answers really, are complex, but let’s face it, there is no other office like the presidency. Politicians have plenty of options at other levels; they can run for mayor, city council, county executive, state legislature, public service commission, judgeships and so on. But the presidency is the Golden Fleece and Holy Grail of politics and we’ve seen how relentlessly those were pursued.

That is not to say that long-shot candidates for president are all crazy adventurers. There are some very practical reasons why dark horse candidates run for the presidency.

Reasons why they run

First, they might win. In 1976 Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to claim the Democratic Party nomination and win the presidency. In our 24/7 news cycle and social-media-saturated world, all candidates get scrutiny. Consequently, the Jimmy Carter tactic of stealth organizing the Iowa Caucuses wouldn’t work today. But that is not to say that there are no heretofore unrealized under-the-radar strategies.

A candidate may have a particular cause. Ross Perot spent in the course of his two campaigns over $200 million of his own money to highlight the problem of the national deficit. And because he was so successful, the two major parties co-opted his cause and the budget was balanced.

They have an ulterior motive. Candidates can run in pursuit of a particular goal, not the presidency. Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain parlayed their candidacies into lucrative media jobs. Furthermore, on the chance that they gain some leverage during the campaign, long-shot candidates can parlay their support into cabinet appointments, ambassadorships and perhaps even invitations to the World Economic Forum at Davos.

They are true believers. Candidates can represent a particular ideological wing of the party. To ideologues, politics are disappointing because they require compromise. Ideological candidates represent the purists in the party. And because purist money doesn’t dry up just because their candidate is losing means that true believers can stay in the race for longer.

They are playing the long game. Maybe they won’t win this time but if they showcase well, long shots put themselves in a position to be leading candidates next time around. This strategy works only for the relatively young. This may have been Obama’s strategy in 2008, but – surprise! – he won.

Handicapping the Republican field of dreamers

Now let’s handicap the race on the Republican side with a particular focus on the latest entries.

Long-shot candidates generally lose because they run out of money. And because primaries are serial elections, to continue from one week to the next candidates must demonstrate electoral viability to raise money for their campaigns. That means winning each week or doing better than expected.

There are two types of money in primary campaigns, tactical money and true believer money. About 80% or more of the money contributed is tactical money or money meant to influence the outcome of the race. To support a losing candidate is to throw good money after bad, therefore as candidates get weeded out through the electoral process, their money tends to dry up. The exception is the case of a true believer candidate. True believers are used to losing but because of the strength of their beliefs, they don’t give up.

So what are Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson up to?

Carly Fiorina wants to apply her business acumen to the governing process. In that respect, she is a lot like Mitt Romney who is a successful businessman. But that is where the comparison breaks down. Carly Fiorina wasn’t actually an entrepreneur, she was a CEO. Collecting a big payday is different from making a big payday. Her tenure at Hewlett Packard was spotty and will be subject to attack, but only if she gets to be a serious contender. It is more likely that she will be ignored.

Unlike Romney she has no high-level governing experience. But she does have political experience; she lost a Senate race in California (which, by the way, puts her to the left of most of the Republican primary constituency). She is also a woman but that really does her no good in the Republican primaries where identity politics do not revolve around women’s issues.

In other words, she really has nothing going for her. Which actually might be a hidden advantage. Any positive performance on her part will be a big surprise. And if she does well, and a Republican wins, she has the resume of a cabinet official, Department of Commerce perhaps?

It appears that Dr Ben Carson’s “cause” is the repeal of Obamacare. Given the relative success of the program he will probably fail because the Party is probably ready to move on and Obamacare isn’t a high salience moral issue in the manner of abortion or religious freedom. Therefore, he won’t attract the tactical money because he can’t win and he won’t attract the “true believer” money because that will go to the religious candidates. He is an African American but as is the case with Carly Fiorina, racial identity doesn’t carry much weight in the Republican primaries.

Carson appears to be on the talk show track.

Mike Huckabee’s bucket list: The Presidency. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

For Huckabee, it’s now or never

Mike Huckabee is probably making a lifecycle choice. If he waits for the next likely opening, he’ll be 68 years old and that’s getting a little long in the tooth. He has governing experience and has had a media platform for getting his message out. Of the three candidates discussed here, his campaign makes the most sense. However, he will be competing for a crowded space. He will presumably run for the true believer or Christian vote. There he has to compete with Senator Ted Cruz, former Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Rick Perry, all of whom are pretty formidable opponents. However, none of them can claim to be an ordained minister and none of them have the media experience Huckabee has gained in the last eight years.

However, the religious wing of the Republican Party while important, especially in the South and in caucus states, is almost always trumped by the business wing of the party.

In other words, even if Huckabee carves out a space, he will likely lose. But he will last longer because he has access to true believer money. Therefore, he has a good chance to influence the policy content of the race and, if a Republican president is elected, he would be a good candidate for a Cabinet appointment. How does Department of Interior sound?

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, see “Run Bernie Run.”