Why Are So Many Losers Running For President?

Obviously, most of these people are smart enough to realize they can't possibly win, right?


Kevin Drum asks a question that is probably on the mind of many Americans:

There just aren’t very many candidates who have a serious chance at winning the nomination. So why are so many running? When guys like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul ran, I understood why. They just wanted a chance to present their views to a national audience. But that can’t be what’s motivating everyone on this list. So what is it? What is it that’s somehow convinced so many obvious losers that they actually have a shot at becoming the next president of the United States?

The answer, of course, is that many of these people, whether it’s George Pataki or Lindsey Graham on the GOP or Lincoln Chafee on the Democratic side, know on some level that they really don’t have much of a shot at being President. They may not let that thought come into their heads very often, and when it does they quickly suppress it, and they certainly don’t admit it to anyone else other than perhaps their family members and close friends, but they know it. After all, these are not unintelligent men we’re talking about here and many of them have been in electoral politics for decades. They would have to be willfully blind not to know that the fact that they are polling in the low single digits right now most likely means that their campaign isn’t going to go very far, and that it’s likely to be over before the first votes are cast in the 2016 primaries.

Kevin’s question, though, presumes that everyone who’s running for President is running because they think they can win. Some of them, like Bernie Sanders, are running to promote a set of ideas and try to influence the direction of their party and the eventual nominee. Some of them are sitting politicians who are running to enhance their political resumes for future runs for office. For example, many have suggested that if he loses the Republican nomination Marco Rubio will likely be a candidate for Florida Governor in 2018. Other candidates are likely looking for a future role in a Republican Administration as a Cabinet Secretary or Ambassador. Carly Fiorina, for example, has been suggested as a potential Secretary of Commerce, which seems like a perfectly harmless and meaningless Cabinet position that she shouldn’t be able screw up too badly at. Finally,  some of these are quite honestly just to make a name for themselves among party activists that they can later parlay into higher fees on the speaking circuit, book contracts, or some other greater presence in the media. Herman Cain, for example, has managed to turn a Presidential campaign that collapsed in flames after allegations of sexual misconduct into a career as a talk radio host, frequent appearances on Fox News Channel, and an apparently profitable presence on the Internet. You can make your own determinations about which of the 2016 crop of candidates fall in to which of these categories, but the point is that Drum’s question misses the point. People don’t necessary run for President because they think they can be elected President.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    GOP candidates are the new purse dog for billionaires. You can’t show up at some billionaire conference and not have a pet Republican peeking his cute little head out of your pocket or purse, you would look under-dressed.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Show business for ugly people.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Secretary of Commerce, which seems like a perfectly harmless and meaningless Cabinet position that she (Fiorina) shouldn’t be able screw up too badly at.

    Dyam Doug. There are days I wonder if you get it, then you come through.

  4. Slugger says:

    Where does the term “losers” in your headline come from? Has anyone ever lost anything? As the article points out each one gets media attention, the kind of attention that would cost many million dollars if you paid for it. Further, they get to raise money which they may not stick directly into their pocket, but they can certainly employ their kids as campaign managers at a good salary and give out many volumes of a book they wrote as campaign literature. The article gives the example of Herman Cain, and I would challenge people to find someone who is not more prominent and richer after running.
    The problem that we, the people, have is that politics has become so partisan that once someone wraps themselves in the flag of their cause or party, they are set for life.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    The Republican Party has become the party of stupid. Thus the GOP field is full of stupid.
    Next question?

  6. Mikey says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Show business for ugly people.

    Or, sports for the athletically useless.

  7. Kylopod says:

    The answer, of course, is that many of these people, whether it’s George Pataki or Lindsey Graham on the GOP or Lincoln Chafee on the Democratic side, know on some level that they really don’t have much of a shot at being President.

    I think you underestimate people’s capacity for self-delusion. Most politicians have huge egos to begin with, and they surround themselves by people who are constantly telling them how great they are. So yes–despite the other motivations people have for running for president, such as vying for veep or a cabinet position, or getting a gig on Fox, or selling books, or promoting certain ideas–I believe a lot of people do it because they truly, sincerely managed to convince themselves they’ve got a shot at winning.

    It isn’t a new phenomenon. (Remember Arlen Specter in 1996? Dan Quayle in 2000?) But I think the rise of Obama has reinforced this tendency. While many commentators today overstate how much of an underdog Obama was in 2007 (he was actually the leading alternative to Hillary from the start, and contrary to what many people remember, had significant backing from party insiders), the fact that a first-term senator managed to defeat a strong front-runner and become president has convinced a lot of candidates who might otherwise seem implausible that they, too, can beat the conventional wisdom.

    Republican candidates rarely will admit they were partly inspired by Obama, but I believe it is a strong factor motivating them.

  8. Pinky says:

    To be in the single digits on the Republican side is to be 7 points off the lead with more than half a year to go.

  9. Seipherd says:

    IMHO, politicians should not be allowed to run for another elected office while holding an elected position. This loophole is used to troll for crony bucks by making backroom deals with big money unions, corporate lobbyists and moneybags.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    Secretary of Commerce, which seems like a perfectly harmless and meaningless Cabinet position

    Because of course weather forecasts are purely frivolous luxuries, and have no economic or human safety implications. And the census is cute, but it’s not like it actually has some kind of economic or social policy value…

  11. Tony W says:

    Why are so many losers running for president? Because running for office pays great, strokes one’s ego, and the barrier to entry is super-low – particularly on the Republican side. Chatter on about god, guns and gays – then rake in the big bucks from your adopted donor.

    The only real downside is that you have to be a complete sociopath – but the paradox/beauty of that affliction is that nobody knows they have it.

  12. edmondo says:

    I think Doug has totally underestimated Carly’s capabilities here. I believe she could screw up the Commerce Department really badly.

  13. John425 says:

    I think that all the “losers” are running because they think if Hillary is running then anyone can run.

  14. Hal_10000 says:

    As I said on Twitter, when I look at the GOP field, I feel like the country accidentally subscribed to a really awful dating service.

  15. Anonne says:

    Because there are no limits to the wingnut welfare gravy train, it seems. Running for office is a good gig if you can get enough kooks behind you. Look at Sarah Palin, I’m surprised she hasn’t declared already.

  16. Xenos says:

    I call it the Patrick Buchanan effect. Run a half-assed but rabble-rousing campaign, get donations, spend half of them on the campaign itself, keep the rest. Repeat every four years, parlay it into book deals and TV pundit contracts.

    If you pull it off you can make a very nice living for yourself, including the ability to place your children into cozy sinecures in the think-tanks and federal bureaucracy.

  17. mike shupp says:

    Why should any Republican run for President against HRC? It’s probably a lost cause, after all, no matter who you are. barring Acts of —


    Because if itis an Act of God which takes Hilary Clinton out of the Presidential race, and you’d like to see yourself as President, the first thing is, you’ve really got to be a figure in the race already. You’ve got to be Scott Walker or Rand Paul or Jeb Bush or Rick Perry or whomever, because the campaign is already old enough that latecomers — from either party — are not going to have much traction.

    The second thing is that just maybe what knocks Hilary out of the Presidential race will work to your advantage (or your opponents’ disadvantage). Suppose HRC is shot down by a Bible-shouting 100%-American fundamentalist Christian. You’re probably have to turn down your 2nd Amendment rhetoric a bit. Suppose HRC and much of the crowd about her is blown up by a hajib-clad Muslim immigrant suicide bomber. This’d be bad for Jed Bush, really sweet for Scott Walker. Suppose Hilary mentions having an abortion, maybe while in the White House. More good news for Scott Walker.

    And so on. Yes, the odds of such disasters to Hilary are small, but the pay-off to at least some Republican candidates could be enormous. Which makes it “rational” for Republicans to run against her, even the unlikely ones.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Personally, I think Doug way underestimates Ms Fiorina.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @mike shupp: I forget who to credit with this line – the out party is never more than a scandal or crisis away from power.

    The serious ones are also setting up for 2020 when, if Larry Bartel’s formula is correct, Hillary may be very vulnerable simply because it will be 12 years into Dem incumbency.

  20. al-Ameda says:

    Why are so many losers running for president?

    In economics there is Say’s Law, which basically postulates that supply creates its own demand. I think that applies to politics too.

    The current Republican Party is replete with what we used to consider extremist ‘losers.’ They used to be marginalized, now they’re front-and-center. The Democratic Party has far fewer of these type of ‘loser’ candidates.

  21. mike shupp says:

    @gVOR08: Good point. Although I’d like to see an analysis somewhere of how many of these guys might reasonably be candidates in a 2020 or 2024 Presidential race. Cruz, Rubio, Walker might be young enough to give it another try, but most of the rest are getting kind’a long in the tooth.

    Which is also a dsadvantage faced by Hilary and most other Democratic contenders this time out. come to think of it. It’d be fun to see a post on whom the candidates might be in 2020 if the Democrats manage to blow the 2016 race.

    Hey, Doug, if you’ve some time on your hands… !

  22. DrDaveT says:


    I think Doug has totally underestimated Carly’s capabilities here. I believe she could screw up the Commerce Department really badly.

    See, there is something we can both agree on.

  23. Pinky says:

    @mike shupp:

    Age in 2020:

    Jindal 49
    Rubio 49
    Cruz 50
    Walker 53
    Paul 57
    Christie 58
    Santorum 62
    Graham 65
    Huckabee 65
    Fiorina 66
    Bush 67
    Kasich 68
    Carson 69
    Perry 70

  24. Pinky says:

    While pulling those numbers, I ran across Larry Sabato’s list of Republican candidates. Of the top three tiers, 12 candidates, 11 of them are sitting or former governors or senators. (It’s the same names as I had on my comment, minus Fiorina and Graham.)

  25. Pinky says:

    I looked up the most common previous occupations for the presidents. They were: lawyer, military, congressman, senator, governor. Of the 12 candidates on Sabato’s list, 7 are or have been governors, four each are or have been lawyers, congressman, and senators. None as far as I know have any military experience.