Why do longshot US presidential candidates stay in the race?

Before second Republican debate, experts explain why low-polling candidates hold on despite paltry chances of victory.

north dakota governor Doug Burgum
Republican presidential candidate and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum greets supporters in Des Moines, Iowa [Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – The second Republican debate of the 2024 United States presidential election cycle is looming, with the party’s White House hopefuls set to once more make their case to the American public.

The current GOP frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, will again skip the event on Wednesday evening in California, arguing that his decisive lead in most polls so far means he does not have to participate.

Political polls are far from foolproof, but Trump’s commanding national average of 55 percent support – a lead of 33 percentage points over his closest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – spells trouble for even his toughest competitors.

For the rest of the Republican field, who are currently polling in the low, single digits or decimals, the challenge may seem insurmountable. With 10 months of pricey primary campaigning ahead, the gaping canyon between Trump and his opponents begs a simple question for longshot candidates: Why stay in the race?

With motivations ranging from setting the groundwork for future presidential runs, raising their national profiles, manoeuvering for spots in the eventual nominee’s administration, or grinding an ideological axe, there are no simple answers.

Not to be overlooked, said Kenneth Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is good, old-fashioned self-belief.

“Politics is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen. And this could be very unpredictable year,” Miller told Al Jazeera.

“So one of the things that maybe we under-appreciate with some of these candidates is that they think they can actually win.”

The ‘longshot’ candidate

US elections have for centuries been known for drawing big personalities – and big bank accounts. For many years, major political parties in the US picked their nominees through internal deliberations far removed from public view.

But the concept of the “longshot” candidate largely coincided with the 1970s emergence of the modern, US electoral system, explained Miller.

That was when the parties began choosing their nominees based on a series of binding state contests, known as either caucuses or primaries.

Under the system, party delegates are assigned to a candidate based on the results in a state. The candidate with the most delegates nationally at the end of the primary season becomes the party’s nominee.

For example, former US President Jimmy Carter’s darkhorse surge in the 1976 primaries, which preceded his general election victory, helped to further solidify the concept, Miller added.

Of those in the current Republican field who appear to truly believe they can become a major player, despite lacklustre polling, Miller pointed to former Vice President Mike Pence, currently polling at about 4 percent.

“I think Mike Pence thinks he can win,” Miller said. “Even though I don’t think anyone outside of the campaign thinks he can.”

‘Serial’ primaries

The “serial” format of the US primaries also fosters hope that the race can change on a dime, said Daniel Franklin, an associate professor emeritus of political science at Georgia State University.

Primary votes are organised and held in US states according to a staggered schedule; for the 2024 presidential race, they begin on January 15 in Iowa and stretch into June.

The prolonged primary season means campaign calculations are constantly changing, creating ample opportunity for voters’ intentions, the candidates’ strategies, and most importantly, the support of donors, to shift.

But underperforming in these contests can mean all-important financial support dries up, leaving candidates staring down the prospect of dipping into their own funds.

“There are three considerations on continuing in the primaries and they are money, money and money,” Franklin said.

He pointed to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is currently polling at just less than 3 percent, who “has already said that if he doesn’t outperform in the New Hampshire primary [expected in January], he’ll be finished”.

Many candidates are likely waiting for the Iowa caucuses, where outsider candidates have found unexpected success in the past, including a surprise victory by Senator Ted Cruz in 2016, and Rick Santorum in 2012, before deciding whether to remain in the race.

But the reckoning can come much earlier for the farthest afield candidates, particularly if they do not manage to seize the national spotlight in the primetime televised debates before the official primary seasons, Franklin added.

For instance, Miami mayor Francis Suarez became the first Republican to drop out of the 2024 race after he failed to qualify for the first debate in August. On the flip side, firebrand candidate Vivek Ramaswamy saw a fundraising boon after a lively debate performance.

Trump himself underscored the significance of the debate stage during his initial run, with his early performances in 2015 against a crowded Republican field consolidating his place as a frontrunner.

“It’s a chance to stand out and hopefully not stand out in a way which is embarrassing,” Franklin said of the debates. “You want to be impressive.”

But why run?

Campaigns represent big money for candidates and their backers, massive time commitments, and potentially agonising public scrutiny.

But the baseline cost of running, which Miller explained can be as little as tens of thousands of dollars to get onto the primary ballot in an individual state, is relatively attainable for candidates with a pre-established profile and fundraising savvy, according to Miller.

Others have the personal wealth to carry them through, regardless of the cost.

“Anyone who is even remotely plausible … can appeal to even a handful of donors, and can get enough money to get onto the ballot,” he said.

But regardless of the costs, many hopefuls see the possible benefits of a presidential run as huge.

For one, said Franklin, a longshot candidacy can be a “test run for a successful run”. Former Presidents John F Kennedy, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan all unsuccessfully ran for president before they eventually won the White House.

A campaign also gives the opportunity for candidates who are known regionally, but lack countrywide recognition, such as 2024 GOP candidate and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, to “nationalise” their brands.

That can have major career implications: By raising their profile, many candidates hope they will position themselves for a high-profile posting if their party goes on to win the presidency.

Franklin pointed to Democrat Pete Buttigieg, who was able to leapfrog from the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a population of 100,000 people, to secretary of transportation following a longshot presidential run in 2020.

Others, including 2012 Republican candidates Herman Caine and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, have parlayed the primary platform into lucrative media careers.

Uncertainty looms over Trump

Still others, Franklin told Al Jazeera, represent the “truly committed” – those driven by ideology or who have a lasting base that motivates them to stay in the race until the bitter end.

“That would be [a candidate] who continues all the way to the end because their supporters are not strategic. They’re the faithful,” he said, pointing to the dogged 1984 and 1988 Democratic primary campaigns of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.

Yet despite the way past presidential races have played out, and the candidates’ varied motivations for staying in the race, Miller said the upcoming US election comes at an unprecedented time, which may make staying in the race more appealing than in past election cycles.

With Trump facing four separate criminal cases – a first-ever for a former US president or leading presidential candidate – the dynamics of the race could shift deep into 2024.

It remains to be seen how the Republican Party leadership would respond to a situation in which their nominee has been criminally charged – or possibly sentenced to time behind bars.

Some candidates also may feel that they could be able to “make a case” for themselves at the Republican convention, where the party’s candidate is ultimately chosen, if the GOP is unable to nominate Trump for whatever reason, said Miller.

He pointed to DeSantis, US Senator Tim Scott and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as candidates who “can probably stay in the race much longer through support of their wealthy donors” and super PACS, or “political action committees”.

“But it’s a gamble,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera