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Does running for president really make any sense?

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Does running for president make any sense?

Republican candidates appear to be coming out of the woodwork every day. Do these people actually all think they can win? Does running for the presidency as a low-profile candidate make any logical sense, or are all these people slightly insane? —Warren McLean

IT’S TRUE that the 2016 list of presidential candidates is growing more unwieldy by the hour. Through last week, the tally of people who’ve filed a Form 2 statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission is 424.

These include a Federalist Party candidate, an Absolute Dictator Party candidate, and an independent (likely in more ways than one) named Sydneys Voluptuous Buttocks. But perhaps these aren’t the kind of candidates you’re talking about. Mr. or Ms. Buttocks probably understands that he or she’s not going to win, but Republican George Pataki may well not. And as a result he’ll probably spend serious time and money trying in vain to convince the rest of us.

So what makes the Patakis run? OK, some of the borderline candidates are just megalomaniacs with a seeming ability to metabolize derision (we’re looking at you, Donald). But the rest of the ever-expanding field is likely thinking: maybe I can actually win this thing, and if not the boost in cred alone is probably worth it.

Those who believe they stand a chance of winning at least the nomination aren’t totally nuts: the primaries are perhaps the only part of the presidential election cycle where the campaign really matters. The post-convention phase of the process, according to many political scientists, is determined by some combination of the state of the economy and the perceived performance of the incumbent party. (It’s thought this basic principle may be true of elections worldwide.) So on this theory, all the oratory, charisma, and excruciating interviews with Katie Couric didn’t really matter—Obama was going to beat McCain in 2008 anyway because Bush was unpopular and the economy was exploding like a cat in a microwave.

The primaries, though, remain relatively open and competitive, for two major reasons. First, starting with the 1976 election, the government has matched the funds of any candidates who manage to raise at least $5,000 in 20 separate states, with a maximum amount per individual donor of $250. This funding lasts only as long as the candidate can maintain at least 10 percent of the vote in the two most recent primaries, but often candidates go all-in on the early contests anyway because of the second reason: studies have shown that a crucial factor in voters’ decision-making processes (as significant as intrinsic candidate preference) is whether a candidate is seen as electable.

Which means those who show well in the early going, even if they trailed in polls and/or fundraising (though see below) before the primaries started, tend to become even more appealing to voters going forward, and also attract more money.

This was certainly true in 2008: Clinton’s polling lead of 20 percentage points shrank immediately after Obama’s surprising performance on Super Tuesday. What’s more, the margins of return on this tendency are exponentially greater the less is known about a candidate beforehand.

The big caveat to all this is that there’s a limit to how dark-horsey one can safely be, even during pre-primary season. The legislation that introduced matching funds also tried to limit total campaign spending, but the Supreme Court struck that part down, and since then the cost of campaigning has skyrocketed: 2012’s presidential race cost $2.6 billion.

So winning the nomination is still quite rare if you aren’t making it rain: since 1976 there have only been two cases where the candidate with the most money on the eve of the primaries didn’t win the party nomination, and both times the candidate who did—Obama and Jimmy Carter—was still in the top five fundswise. In other words, you have to start at a certain base level of popularity to hold your own financially, even at the beginning of the race.

If you do manage to make it out of the convention, you’re at least in position to hope the economy and the incumbent’s approval rating conspire to put you in the White House. But even if you don’t wind up as the nominee, going through the candidacy process can clearly be an excellent career move.

Howard Dean flunked out of the 2004 primaries, but he got elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Newt Gingrich parlayed his 2012 run into a high-profile (if short-lived) gig with CNN. Joe Biden, of course, became vice president—hey, whatever floats your boat.

With at least 15 recognizable names already in the Republican pack, obviously most aren’t going to reach the top level of fundraising success that equates with viability, so a lot of these people are playing for soapbox time now and speaking fees later.

Is that enough payout to warrant, say, eight months of grueling travel, degrading debate formats, and New Hampshire cuisine, not to mention the possible revelation of any extramarital affairs you’re having?

I’m comfortable with “slightly insane” if you are.