Why running for president has a lot of upsides, even for the candidates who lose

Four 2024 Republican presidential candidates. Clockwise: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Clockwise: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, and Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo
  • 10 people will soon be in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Only one will get it.

  • Eight of those candidates are polling in the single digits.

  • Insider asked those who've been through it before why they went through it at all when they were sure to lose.

At least 10 Republicans will be running for president before this month is up. Only one will actually get the nomination. And that person might still lose the presidency.

If the election was held today, polling shows former President Donald Trump would be the GOP nominee. A distant second is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

None of the other candidates are above 5% in national polls. They include former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and radio host Larry Elder. Former

Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are expected to make their run official within the next couple of weeks.

It's a stunning number of entrants for an experience that is, according to Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign manager Terry Sullivan, "horrendous," "grueling," and the "most dehumanizing thing you'll ever do."

"If you're going to do it, you have to have a good rationale for why you're doing it," Sullivan, who is now a founding partner of the public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, told Insider.

With that reality and long odds in a crowded field of candidates, why run at all? Why put yourself and your family through the brutal process of having rivals and the media turn over every detail of your life and mock your idiosyncrasies?

Insider spoke with political observers as well as people who've tried — and failed — to win the White House before. It turns out also-rans have avenues to reap benefits that have nothing to do with actually taking the Oath of Office. The perks may even outweigh the possibility of humiliation at the hands of Trump.

Here are just some of the ways ex-presidential candidates can win by losing.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Kamala Harris.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They can set themselves up for a Cabinet spot or another top job

People running for president aren't just auditioning for the highest office in the world — they could also be auditioning for a lot of other prime jobs in a future administration.

Things turned out well for Pete Buttigieg, who was the little-known Millenial Mayor of South Bend, Indiana before he ran for president in 2020. Now he's secretary of transportation, holding the purse strings for billions of federal dollars in infrastructure spending.

A presidential run was even more beneficial for then-Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who — despite accusing her former 2020 rival Joe Biden of racism during a debate — became the first woman of color to be elected vice president.

GOP candidates in the 2024 field could similarly wind up with top jobs. Stacy Rosenberg, a political communications expert at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, told Insider she could see Haley or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — who is still mulling a run — being on a GOP running mate shortlist.

"Even if they don't win the primary, I think they would have a shot at being picked for the VP spot," she said. "They could be in the game for that reason — to show their popularity and their ability to command a room."

They can make a lot of money from selling books

Publishers have shown huge interest in candidates who previously ran for president, and are willing to pay six-figure advances for them to dish about their lives or time in politics. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who ran for president in 2020, received a $730,350 advance from Macmillan Publishing, her financial disclosure shows.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who competitively ran for president in 2016 and 2020, earned $170,000 in book royalties alone in 2022 for his recently published best-selling book, "It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism."

Senators, who earn a $174,000 annual salary, can significantly pad their income with these kinds of deals. Often, candidates can even get the book deals before they run for president, especially if there's a lot of buzz around them.

Candidates can then use the books to fundraise and help voters get to know them better. Penning a memoir has "almost become a prerequisite" to seeking the presidency, J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Insider.

Former 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

They can also make a lot of money from TV and radio deals, or commercials

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a prime example of someone who parlayed presidential losses into a full-time media gig. He won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, lost them in 2016, and through it all got a spot on Fox News and on radio.

Elder, meanwhile, shot a commercial with the anti-inflammation supplement Relief Factor after an unsuccessful run in the 2021 California recall election. Now that he's in the 2024 race, he might be able to find other similar opportunities.

A presidential candidate who really takes off but then loses could maybe even land a deal with a streaming service to participate in a documentary, Rosenberg said. The Obamas struck a major deal with Netflix to launch several features, albeit after two terms.

"If you're not serious about running and winning — and of course, they'll all say they are — but if you're not serious about that, then running for president essentially is a vehicle to up books sales, speaking fees, and potential endorsements," Republican strategist Doug Heye told Insider.

Running for president "opens doors," Sullivan acknowledged. While some run to win, others "run as a vanity project or some sort of longer play," he said.

It's a chance for never-Trumpers to attack Trump

Adam Kinzinger hasn't announced a run for president, but the former congressman from Illinois and January 6 Committee member has mused that he would "love" to run against Trump "to be able to stand up and call out the garbage."

That could be a motivation for 2024 candidates already in the race. "For some candidates, an important reason to get in the race is to make sure the greater vision of being a Republican is shared with voters — that there is another side to conservatism than the Donald Trump grievance, Archie Bunker-style," Sullivan said.

Certainly, some Republicans in the primary have openly criticized Trump, such as Hutchinson. Rosenberg said she thought he might view it as his duty to take Trump on, to show voters what he thought was right.

Ex-candidates can become more effective at getting their policies passed

Sanders might have lost the Democratic nomination twice, but he did succeed at moving the party further to the left, driving a huge voting bloc of young progressives. Because of his influence, the United States is on the way to negotiating the price of some prescription drugs, and a growing number of Democrats are willing to put their name on legislation that would move everyone living in the country onto a government-funded healthcare plan. 

Even little-known Sen. Michael Benet of Colorado, who ran in 2020, saw his biggest cause, the Child Tax Credit, become a reality in the COVID-19 relief package Biden signed into law. Running for president allows elected leaders to be "a bigger player on any issue they want to be," Heye said.

"This gives you more experience, more batting practice, even if you're not making it to the last primary states," Heye said.

Similarly, legislators can develop interests in other causes while visiting other parts of the United States. Rubio told Insider about his time on the 2016 trail, when he heard horror stories about people plagued by opioid abuse and small towns fighting for survival as economic blows kept coming.

"These weren't pleasant experiences. But they were important ones that sort of changed my approach to a number of issues and raised new ones in my mind," the Florida Republican said.  "It changes you. I think it made me a better senator."

Sen. John Hickenlooper, a former two-term governor of Colorado who wound up flipping a GOP seat on Capitol Hill after bailing on a short-lived presidential campaign that lingered around 1% in polls, told Insider his bid for the White House was a whirlwind of relationship-building.

"A lot of times you're with other candidates," Hickenlooper said. "That's the first time I got to know Kamala Harris as a person. Same with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders."

"It really expanded my knowledge of just how many different possible solutions there are to a given problem," he continued. "And it helped me think through how do you create a compromise around these competing solutions."

From left, Moderator Wolf Blitzer, Republican presidential candidates, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich participate in a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston on February 25, 2016.
CNN host and debate moderator Wolf Blitzer stands in front of the Republican presidential candidates in 2016.David J. Phillip/AP Photo

The slim chance they unexpectedly take off

Let's face it: Very few people predicted Trump would win the presidency in 2016. Ever since the former reality TV star and real estate mogul stunned the world with his upset against Hillary Clinton, it seems like a "why-not-me?" outlook has taken hold among both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

Trump is the frontrunner now, but the circumstances could change during the debates and as the campaign season moves ahead. "Where someone is in the polls doesn't mean that's where they'll end up come Iowa and New Hampshire," Heye said. Scott, for instance, has a huge campaign fundraising haul that he has yet to spend.

Underdogs have been elected president before, including then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

"They just don't know what else is going to drop," Rosenberg said of the GOP candidates in the mix. "They might be truly hopeful that they can break through."

After all, Trump's legalpolitical, and personal liabilities are piling up — and he's also in his late 70s. "If something happens with Trump's health and the field is fluid, why close that door?" Coleman asked.

Winning a presidential race in the future

Losing the presidency on the first or even second try doesn't spell doom for a shot at the White House. Numerous presidents were once failed presidential candidates, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush — and Biden.

Sometimes candidates get better at crafting their message, or they happen to run at a time when voters think they're the right person for the job.

"The only way to learn how to run for president," Sullivan said, "is to run for president."

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