Winning by Losing: The Politics of Running for President When You Have Little Chance of Winning

Watching Governor Bobby Jindal mount a quixotic campaign for president has led many observers – and not just Jindal critics – to question why run at all if you have no chance of winning.  You can ask the same question about any number of growing crowd of Republican contenders from Lindsey Graham to Chris Christie to Donald Trump.  While some of the reasons are deeply personal, there are also more systematic explanations.

First, the more candidates that enter the race – particularly in the absence of a clear frontrunner, the smaller the share of the vote any candidate needs to potentially become viable. In most national polls, Jeb Bush is leading the pack but only has 15-20 percent of the vote. As a potential candidate, you don’t need the ground to shift very dramatically to become competitive.

Second, call it the Obama Effect or the Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum Effect. Many of these candidates remember that: (1) President Obama beat the established, heavily advantaged and overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton in 2008 to win the Democratic nomination; and (2) In 2012, a number of Republican candidates emerged as the “anti-Romney” candidate for brief flicker of time but none could capitalize on the opportunity. Rick Santorum who got beat by 16-points in his last Pennsylvania Senate campaign managed the strongest and most sustained challenge. Nearly every single announced candidate this go-round is at least as strong as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum in 2012. Their hope is to catch fire and transition into a major contender.

Third, in politics winning isn’t everything, particularly if you are focused just on the 2016 election cycle. For many of these candidates, their goals are not narrowly focused on a 2016 win but rather to emerge as a future leader of the Republican Party. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal can run in 2036 and still be younger than Hillary Clinton is today. Running now helps to establish an organizational presence, a funding basis for future elections, and establishes them as a potential voice for the Republican Party should Democrats win in 2016.

Fourth, winning the presidency isn’t the only “win” from running a national campaign. Any number of the candidates currently on the campaign trail will likely have cabinet level positions should a Republican win the presidency. If a Republican doesn’t win the presidency, they will be in position for television gigs on Fox News or The Blaze Network, or with national think-tanks like the Heritage Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Family Research Council. As Mike Huckabee has demonstrated, losing a presidential bid is not always a bad career move.

Finally, some candidates run not out of personal ambition but to influence the campaign agenda. The best example here may be on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders seems unlikely to win the nomination but will almost certainly have a liberalizing impact on the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, this Republican nomination is not just about who wins, but the future direction of the party.

Overall, the question to ask then is not why are they running when they have no chance of winning, but rather what do they hope to gain out of a failed presidential bid? In most cases, there are real tangible benefits to losing a presidential nomination including (but not limited to) improving your chances for the next go around.


Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court: The Fight Has Only Just Begun

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision today on gay marriage is unquestionably historic, just do not believe the issue is settled. Here is why.

First, while the Court is the final arbiter of constitutional meaning, it is has “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”  The Supreme Court can issue rulings but it cannot enforce them. When faced with a ruling like, President Andrew Jackson famously declared “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Within this context, it is perhaps helpful to recall Brown v. Board (1954) which declared that schools should desegregate “will all deliberate speed,” opening the door to obstruction and delay.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, for example, has already declared Louisiana not recognize or offer gay marriages. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott will issue a directive designed to protect religious freedom against today’s landmark ruling. More than sixty years after Brown, and after making considerable progress from 1960-1980, American public schools are as segregated today as they were in the late 1960s.

Second, Supreme Court decisions often spur the losing side into political action. Consider, for example, the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and the politics of abortion. This landmark decision mobilized pro-life advocates. Pro-choice advocates, believing the battle was permanently won, demobilized. The result has been a long series of state government restrictions followed by court decisions whittling away at the core protections provided via Roe v. Wade.  States currently with bans on gay marriage may well explore ways to limit this newly minted protection, and the decision will have other unanticipated and unintended consequences.

Regardless of what follows, this is a landmark decision worth celebrating today.  But tomorrow, the political groups and organizations that made this decision a reality will need to get back to work. The fight over equal rights has just begun.