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.