Running for President to Build Your Brand

Carly Fiorina was cited in a poll as only two per cent of Republicans’ first choice for President. She plans to announce her candidacy on May 4th, a day before her new book is released. Carly Fiorina was cited in a poll as only two per cent of Republicans’ first choice for President. She plans to announce her candidacy on May 4th, a day before her new book is released. Credit Photograph by Jim Young/Reuters via Landov

Last fall, George Pataki, the former governor of New York, announced that he was considering a run for President. Since then, he’s been making the rounds on Fox News, taking shots at his rivals for the Republican nomination and, with nine visits to New Hampshire since October and another scheduled for next month, establishing himself as a regular on the state’s first-in-the-nation primary circuit. “I have no doubt in my mind that I have the ability to run this country well,” Pataki told the Daily News.

The country is less than convinced. To the extent that a possible Pataki candidacy has been noticed at all, it has been roundly panned. “In politics, you never say never,” the Democratic consultant George Arzt said. “Here, you can say never.” Pataki is not well known outside of his home state, hasn’t held elected office in eight years, and will turn seventy this summer. And yet he seems to be genuinely considering a run. The question, as when Pataki flirted with a bid four years ago, is why. “Pataki—I’m puzzled about this,” Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told me. “I don’t even know what he’s been doing. Has he been on corporate boards?”

The 2016 G.O.P. field is bursting with candidates who have practically no chance of victory. Sabato’s influential Crystal Ball report, which tracks political races across the country, currently counts nineteen potential candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Twelve of them have no shot at winning, Sabato said, adding, “and I’m being generous to some of the other seven.” (His generosity does not extend to a perennially rumored candidate whose name is absent from the list. “We couldn’t include Donald Trump and live with ourselves,” he said.)

Sabato’s Crystal Ball has broken down the Republican field into four tiers. At the top are the “Leading Contenders,” who include the former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and the Florida senator Marco Rubio. Sabato estimates that there’s a seventy-five to eighty per cent chance that the nominee will come from that tier. Pataki is one of seven candidates crowded into the “Gadflies and Golden Oldies” tier, at the bottom. He’s joined there by, among others, the former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O. Carly Fiorina (“Largely unknown,” the Crystal Ball notes. “No base of support”), the former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (“Jim who?”), the onetime Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich (“No rationale for candidacy”), and the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton (“No electoral experience or donor base”). “Even if a lot of the people talking about it today don’t wind up running, we could still be looking at a record number of candidates,” Sabato said.

Why are so many experienced people lining up for a race that they cannot possibly win? For some, there’s a genuine call to serve, or a desire to influence the Party’s platform. And, to be sure, the absence of a clear Republican front-runner gives hope to dreamers everywhere. “They start wondering, Maybe I can catch lightening in bottle,” Sabato said. He told me that a candidate in the bottom tier had called him recently and said, “Just wait till I get on that debate stage!”

For a number of the candidates, however, the chances of actually securing the nomination don’t appear to factor into the decision to run. It is now so easy and so lucrative to mount a campaign for President that, even given the current historically crowded field, it’s a wonder that still more people aren’t running. “The primary process is a spectacle now, and that’s a relatively new development,” Sean McKinley, a Ph.D. student in the politics department at Brandeis University who researches the rewards of unsuccessful campaigns for President, said. “There are increased incentives for people to run, and there are fewer downsides, so why wouldn’t you run?”

McKinley researched Presidential races between 1976 and 2008, and found that losing candidates benefitted enormously simply from having run. Senators who had only narrowly won earlier elections suddenly found themselves retaining their seats by comfortable margins, despite not having shown well in the Presidential race. For example, in 1970, Lloyd Bentsen, a Democrat, won a relatively close Senate race in Texas against the future President George H. W. Bush. Six years later, when Bentsen ran both for President and for reëlection to his Senate seat, he was clobbered by Jimmy Carter in the Presidential primaries but won his Senate seat by fifteen points. He was reëlected to the Senate twice more by comfortable margins, and was Michael Dukakis’s nominee for Vice-President in 1988.

Participating in the public-speaking circuit has emerged as an especially profitable side benefit of running for President. It was reported last year that Hillary Clinton was earning as much as three hundred thousand dollars per appearance at colleges and universities. It’s unlikely, of course, that a middling politician who lacked Clinton’s fame would command such a figure simply for having lost a bid for the White House, but Clinton’s rising tide is widely understood to have lifted all fees. Some of McKinley’s research has focussed on candidates who wound up signing with speaking-engagement agencies after failed runs for President. Gary Bauer, for instance, saw his run, in 2000, as a social-conservative candidate founder after disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he is still available for bookings through the All American Speakers bureau. For many similar candidates, McKinley said, “the only thing they really had on their C.V. was that they had run for President. So if you’re a politician reaching the end of your career, and maybe you haven’t earned as much as you could have in another field, maybe you consider running for President to raise your profile for the speaking tours.”

That comment brought Pataki to mind, but McKinley points in his research to an even more obscure example: Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska who last served in 1981. After Gravel, who is now eighty-five, announced in 2006 that he would run for President in 2008, he managed to land a book deal. Then, despite a largely ignored campaign, in which he ran first as a Democrat and at the end as a Libertarian, he was able to sign for a time with the Harry Walker Agency, a prestigious speakers’ bureau.

It would probably be unfair to characterize Gravel’s run for President as having been about personal enrichment. He has spent much of his career working on the issues that motivated his campaign—political empowerment for everyday citizens, the war on drugs, the entanglement of military spending and bellicose foreign policy—but the run did wind up benefitting him financially. These days, he is the president and C.E.O. of a company called KUSH, which plans to produce marijuana-infused products, such as lozenges. “There’s no question that running for President helped me get the job with KUSH,” Gravel told me. “It probably was window dressing to have a Senator and a former candidate for President.” He told me that he doesn’t receive a salary, but did get stock in the company, which is a subsidiary of Cannabis Sativa, Inc., on whose board he also sits. (The C.E.O. of that company, by the way, is Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, who ran for President as a Libertarian in 2012.) “There are people who are much, much beyond their prime of effectiveness who are running for President for the visibility,” Gravel said.

Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O., appears to be elevating the personal-enrichment campaign strategy to a kind of performance art. She was cited in a poll, released earlier this week, as only two per cent of Republicans’ first choice for President, but will announce her candidacy on May 4th, a day before the release of her new book, “Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey.” “She may win the Newt Gingrich Award for 2016,” Sabato said, and gave Fiorina no chance of actually winning the nomination. “Newt was definitely seeing his book sales go up during his 2012 run—it almost seemed like that was the point of his run, and then he got on a roll and won South Carolina! It was almost by accident.”

Today’s media cycle presents even marginal candidates with endless opportunities to generate headlines that burnish their brands. “There are shades of Marshall McLuhan,” David Michaelson, whose firm, David Michaelson & Company, is a leading authority on the effectiveness of communications and public relations, said. “The medium is the message. Think of a campaign not as a run for office but as an opportunity to tell a story. Think of a campaign as not a campaign but a media platform for your issues or your brand.” And the brand that you’ve built follows you long after you’ve abandoned your campaign. Michaelson cited the example of the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who earned a reputation during his unsuccessful 2008 run as a folksy, conservative truth-teller, an identity that helped him land a talk show on Fox—which he recently left in order to explore a 2016 campaign.

Underscoring—and underwriting—all of this is the fact that it has never been easier to raise the money required for a run. Changes in campaign-finance laws now allow rich donors to essentially give unlimited amounts of money to support a favored candidate. The former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, for example, ran as a kind of boutique candidate for the Wyoming mutual-fund operator Foster Friess. Though he struggled to raise money elsewhere, Santorum was able to win eleven primaries and caucuses thanks largely to the more than two million dollars in donations he received from Friess. The pair are reportedly considering a second act in 2016.

“Campaign finance is going to continue to change the shape of politics, as people realize how permissive the laws are,” McKinley said. He expects that we’ll see even more candidates running in future elections. “There are very few rules left. You may have to solicit money from only a couple dozen people.”

What this means in practice is that some candidates who are hoping to last only long enough in the primaries to cash in later on will no longer have to engage in the unpleasant act of begging lots of people for relatively small amounts of money. “You have to be the kind of person who’s willing to do the kinds of things required of a person running for President—kissing babies and asking people for money—that many of us would find distasteful,” McKinley said. “But even those things are getting easier. You don’t even really need to go out and solicit money anymore.”