Alexander Burns - A pack of longer-than-long-shot Republican presidential hopefuls have lined up for the 2012 campaign, drawing attention to themselves by visiting early-primary states and raising the prospect of a larger and more eclectic field than any in recent memory.
They can’t compete with the GOP’s heavy hitters for money, media attention or, in all likelihood, votes. They defy the laws of political logic. Yet they’re running anyway — to gain personal celebrity, to draw attention to issues they care about or just to see whether, against all plausible expectations, they can catch fire on the campaign trail.
Their numbers include a pizza-executive-turned-tea-party-activist, a political consultant who contributed to Hillary Clinton in 2008, multiple congressional backbenchers and at least four former governors and senators who’ve faded from the scene, only to resurface in time for 2012.
While these potential candidates may not have much in common, they share a recognition that the barriers to entering a presidential race are lower than ever — and that even a losing presidential candidate has something to gain from having run.
The weight of history is against most of them. Despite the fact that no sitting House member has won the presidency since 1880, several House members — among them Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Iowa Rep. Steve King — have said they would consider running under the right circumstances.
Only nominally more viable are several politically dated former governors, including George Pataki of New York, libertarian-leaning Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Louisiana’s Buddy Roemer — an ex-Democrat whose sole term ended in the early 1990s. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is another improbable. He lost his last race five years ago by a wide margin.
Then there is former Nevada candidate Sharron Angle, coming off consecutive defeats for the state Senate, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Despite those setbacks, she recently made a much-noted appearance in Iowa and isn’t ruling out a campaign for president. Neither is former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who has never run for office before and is best known for his gig as a Fox News commentator.
“Everybody who runs for president knows they probably have long odds,” said David Yepsen, a former longtime Des Moines Register reporter who now directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
But running for president has rewards for even the most extreme underdog, Yepsen said.
“They’re asked to comment on things. Yes, they command lecture fees and can sell books and can wind up on a TV program,” he continued. “You generally wind up with an enhanced status of some kind. It’s not true for everybody, but it’s true for most of them.”
That might explain some of the other candidates who are floating their names or making moves toward running: New York real estate mogul Donald Trump; Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza known for speaking at conservative gatherings; and Fred Karger, a GOP operative and Hillary Clinton donor running on a pro-gay-rights platform.
It’s a long way from 1988, when the Democratic field was mocked as “Gary Hart and the seven dwarfs.” Those “dwarfs” included a future House minority leader (Rep. Dick Gephardt), a Cabinet secretary (Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt) and two future vice presidents (Sens. Al Gore and Joe Biden) — plus Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who actually won the nomination. As the 2012 cycle begins to get under way, the sheer volume and eccentricity of candidates considering the race are striking by comparison.
For some of the prospective candidates, there are obvious upsides to a campaign. Dusty former officeholders get to be part of the national conversation again. Ideological mavericks get a platform to speak about their ideas. Minor legislators and failed candidates suddenly get treated like genuine power players.
Bachmann, a congressional backbencher who dropped a short-lived bid for House leadership, even had her response to the State of the Union broadcast on CNN after she made a trip to Iowa.
Johnson, the former two-term New Mexico governor, said the campaign was at a point where candidates wanted to “see if throwing that spit wad up against the window sticks.”
“Their idea is to see if people flock to them,” Johnson said of the growing candidate field. “It rarely happens. But they do that, and the reality of that comes home and, in most cases, they don’t run.
Johnson, who left office in 2003, said that while New Mexico has a Senate seat open in 2012, he’s not interested in running for any federal office except the presidency.
“If I were looking at it, it would be the notion that maybe I might be the only one saying something different than the other 19,” Johnson said.
Karger, for one, lacks Johnson’s cachet as a former top elected official. He is more or less upfront about his chances, citing the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm — who was the first black candidate to seek a major-party nomination — as an inspiration for his run as an openly gay Republican.
“She wanted to pave the way for others in her community” when she ran in 1972, Karger said. “I want to let young people in my community know they can do anything they want to do, even run for president of the United States.”
That task will get easier, Karger said, if he’s included in early candidate debates.
“If that happens, as we’ve seen with others, there could be a breakout moment and anything can happen,” he said.
If the campaign were a reality show, it might be called “America’s Next Top Ron Paul” — named for the quirky Texas congressman whose anti-war, pro-gold-standard platform won him wide notice and more than a few votes during the 2008 Republican primaries.
“You don’t have to be a longtime party elite, at this point, to think you have viability to run for office at a variety of different levels,” said Jesse Benton, an adviser to Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The ability to spread a message through grass-roots and social media has really revolutionized who has access to run.”
Benton was skeptical that any of the 2012 newcomers would be able to replicate what his boss accomplished in 2008 and wondered if any could match Paul’s “35-year record of consistency.”
Sure enough, Paul is planning a trip to Iowa in March and has not ruled out another national campaign in 2012.
He’s also a prime example of a marginal candidate who came out dramatically better off after a losing campaign. Paul’s now the high-profile chairman of the committee that oversees the Federal Reserve. And the national following he developed in 2008 helped elect his son Rand to the Senate last year from Kentucky. Benton managed Rand Paul’s campaign.
That’s the bottom line for many of the candidates embracing their impossibly long odds for 2012: Even if they can’t win the nomination, they also can’t really lose.
“Is Pat Buchanan better off today than he was before he ran?” Yepsen asked, referring to the 1992-vintage gadfly-turned-MSNBC-pundit. “I think that clearly enhanced his stature as a presidential candidate.