In 1896, William McKinley ran for president by just sitting on his front porch. Instead of going to the people, he decided to stay home and invited people to come to him.
Could you imagine a presidential hopeful doing that now? Today’s candidate is everywhere: across the nation, around the world and thoroughly present on every form of media available.
A bid for the presidency now means a 24/7 on-the-job commitment — one that not only requires candidates to travel and speak extensively — but to look good from every angle, as their image will likely live forever in social media. This pressure may seem acceptable, even reasonable, if you have a shot at winning. But what if you are dead last in every poll and so far from the top of the heap that you are barely mentioned at all?
With the addition of Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson as well as seasoned politician Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential primary field gets even more crowded. There are now at least eight people vying for the Republican candidacy.
Will any one of them have a shot? And will anyone viably challenge Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination in 2016?
It begs the question: why would anyone throw their hat in the ring for the presidency if every poll and sparsely attended speaking event points to failure? What could possibly motivate a candidate when the odds are very much against them? And do they influence the other candidates and the general debate in presidential vote years?
A crowd of one for Carol Moseley Braun
Consider a case from Illinois: During former Democratic Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun’s 2004 presidential bid, one headline read “A Crowd of One Meets Moseley-Brown” to describe one of her campaign speeches that she had hoped to make to a large group of supporters. That event was emblematic of her efforts and she dropped out after a brief bid and in 2010 she ran and lost for mayor of Chicago.
Reasons “dark horse” candidates run for president run the gamut.
Some candidates seem to truly believe that against all odds that they could win. Ask anyone who is running for president and regardless of what the polls say you are likely to hear: “because I absolutely believe I can win.” For some, getting a chance to articulate their vision on a bigger stage is gratitude enough. For example, in 1988, Democrat Pat Schroeder withdrew from the presidential race and embarked on a national tour to educate Americans on family policies. She wrote about her experience in her book, “The Champion of the Great American Family.”
While it may not be their main motivation, some campaigns have paved the way for candidates who historically have been left off the presidential history pages. Racially diverse and women candidates automatically bring those social issues forward when they run for president.
Just a few of the candidates who have helped to change the perception of what a president or vice president of the United States might look like include former Democratic Congresswoman, the late Shirley Chisholm who in 1972 challenged gender and race barriers, though she was unsuccessful in her bid.
The Patsy Mink campaign of 1972
A rarely remembered presidential hopeful in the same year was Hawaii Congresswoman and Japanese-American Patsy Mink.
Very few Asians have been on the national stage as politicians, and when Ms. Mink died, her New York Times obituary did not even mention that she ran for president.
Geraldine Ferraro was the first (and only) female Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and Sarah Palin was the first (and only) female Republican vice-presidential nominee. They created visibility for women in national party politics. Joseph Lieberman was the first Jewish vice presidential nominee when he ran with Al Gore in 2000. They all lost their bids but they made the way easier for others like them in the future to run for office.
Lieberman made an unsuccessful bid for president in 2004. Ferraro did not run again on a national scale, but became a national figure who served as a voice and mentor for future candidates, particularly women. It is not clear what the political future holds for Palin, however; after stepping down from the governorship she became a contributor to national television through the Fox network.
What is true for people who want to improve their speaking skills is true for politicians. The more you run for office, the better you get at doing the things that candidates need to do: speak well, stay motivated, communicate with diplomacy and adopt issues that resonate with voters. Running for president, even unsuccessfully, gives candidates experience for future bids and may put them on the radar for other appointments.
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gained national notoriety, wrote a book on his presidential bid, and became the host of a national radio program that bears his name. Clearly for some, a bid for the presidency means national or international recognition and even fame.
Teddy Roosevelt famously said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man (or women) who points out how the strong … stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends him(her)self in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his (her) place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In American politics even a losing candidate can have an impact, because he or she may be able to get across a point of view to the electorate or — on a personal level — gain a new measure of influence.
There is simply no way to measure what the impact factors are for people who run for office unsuccessfully. They may personally benefit with fame or a platform to share their passions, and they no doubt inspire others to try for what seems impossible simply because they stepped into the arena.