As background, some answers of Why run for president if you have no chance to be elected? are relevant, so I will concentrate on the differences.

There are currently more than 20 candidates for the Democratic presidential primary. Who will end up on top is not yet clear, multiple candidates currently on top in polls have realistic chances to win. But multiple candidates on the bottom have no realistic chance, as far as I can see.

I'm German, living in Germany, but very well informed about politics. I never lived for an extended time in the US, so it is possible that I missed something basic - but explaining that could be an answer.

I think having more candidates of a party competing has drawbacks for the party.
It divides attention between candidates, so the realistic candidates lose media coverage and generally part of the possibility to make them basically known at all by voters spending little time and attention on politics.
So it even reduces the number of voters that can make a rational choice between candidates.

Candidates who quit their own candidacy can also support one or more of the realistic candidates, influencing the result and increase the probability of the own party to win.

Basically, it uses a substantial part of resources for letting the own party win. Naively, these resources seem wasted to me.

I assume there are advantages of not reducing the number of candidates.
That can be in two distinct areas: Advantages for the unrealistic candidate personally that are unrelated to the election. And increasing the odds that the own party wins. For the party I see no obvious positive effects, personal benefits exists. A candidate can basically start a candidacy for a later election by starting to get known in the context.

The candidate would use party resources for personal gain. That's not a problem in itself, but it happens in an extremely public way, which makes the whole party very aware of it.

An answer could be that all current candidates are potential winner. That is theoretical the case, because major events can completely change what is most relevant for voters. I think that would happen only in the case of major - typically catastrophic events.

Possible events would be things like outbreak of a significant local war, and realistic but improbable natural disasters like super volcano eruptions or major asteroid impact.

Are there other reasons why all candidates can still realistically win?
Are there other advantages of the current handling of it?

  • 50
    How do they know that they have no realistic chance? Would anyone have given Trump a realistic chance of winning the nomination in 2016, let alone the election? FTM, would anyone have given Obama a realistic chance at this point in '07?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 17:51
  • 2
    FiveThirtyEight did an exit interview with the one person to officially drop out of the primary so far. One of the things he said is he did quit because he didn't have a realistic chance.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 17:41

11 Answers 11


Most of them are just trying to gain national exposure and recognition. A highly-charged primary cycle is a perfect way to do it.

Probably, one of the losing candidates will be offered the Vice-President nomination.

Also, some of the other candidates may be offered Cabinet positions.

Some other candidates will gain enourmous amounts of local recognition which can be used for future (and possibly even 2020 depending on when they drop out) Senate runs. Candidates like Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, John Hickenlooper are good examples of this.

  • 41
    Also this type of stuff can translate to direct monetary gains. Book deals, speaking tours, even just simple campaign contributions to use for future runs. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 2:01
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    To add to your list of soft benefits, a candidate may be working in league with another candidate who have little overlap in demographics from supporters. Assuming Big is polling well but bad in Little's demo, then Big may want Little to get as much support as possible before dropping out and declaring support for Big, and hopefully carrying that demo with them.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 10:12
  • 3
    Candidates do not care if their run will hurt the party. Example in 2004, one candidate run just to get federal matching funds (filed paperwork late), and another blatantly to get better TV ratings and own show, so valid candidate with very compelling story like Clark got little airtime to express his positions and got lost in the hustle. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 14:32
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    Related to the first, some candidates may stay in order to maintain a dialogue for a platform/issue in national media. In some cases, they may even force their party or eventual nominee to adopt those positions as part of their platform.
    – Jimmy M.
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 16:37
  • 1
    This is big business. Roger Ailes wanted to start a Trump TV channel had Trump lost to rival Fox News. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 18:35

I think having more candidates of a party competing has drawbacks for the party. It divides attention between candidates. So the realistic candidates lose media coverage and generally part of the possibility to make them basically known at all by voters spending little time and attention on politics.

This is actually an interesting point. According to a professor who has made a prediction system on which party wins the presidential election, the Keys to the White House, this can be a factor, but isn't now. He had a nice explanation on Real Time with Bill Maher a few weeks ago.

The reason why this infighting doesn't hurt the Democrats now is because they are not in power. If a party is in power and there is lots of infighting or a vicious leadership challenge then it hurts their campaign. For the party out of office, it doesn't (according to the keys theory).

Basically, it uses a substantial part of resources for letting the own party win. Naively, these resources seem wasted to me.

That's not true for a number of reasons. Firstly, different candidates can appeal to different people. For example, three different candidates who won't make it anyway can focus on specific issues that appeal to a small, but significant group of people and get them actively involved in the presidential campaign.

When these candidates endorse another Democrat later on, those people having supported them are more engaged than if these drop-out candidates hadn't campaigned in the first place. Furthermore, it's possible that the drop-out has some influence in the new campaign they're endorsing and possibly even joining.

To go back to the 2016 Republican campaign (Democrats were the incumbents then, so it's similar to the current situation for the Democrats), we see many short-lived campaigns have endorsed Trump. Furthermore, their frontrunners have held important positions in Trump's campaign and later his presidency.

To name a few, Chris Christie (head of the presidential transition team for Donald Trump and potential vice-presidential running mate), Ben Carson (secretary of HUD) and Rick Perry (secretary of Energy).

And the same goes for the 2008 Democratic primary. Hilary Clinton was a candidate in the primaries, she then became secretary of state under Obama. Joe Biden was also a candidate in the 2008 primary and he became vice president.

In that sense, it makes sense for candidates to run even if they don't win. They build a base (which is good for a politician anyway) and that gives them a better shot at a position in the new government (if they win) or a better job in the future (e.g. in committee of the political body they are in or as a candidate who more people know in a local top position, e.g. Governor of their state).

  • 1
    This is a good answer, but I think the point is still correct that the party out of power is weaker than they would have been with a shorter primary. The reason it’s a “key” for the party in power, is that the infighting has to be orders of magnitude worse for a party to seriously consider ditching an incumbent, because incumbency gives lots of advantages.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 15:20
  • 1
    @Joe yea, I can see that, but I can't back that with any evidence. The researcher on the other hand, was asked just about that by Maher and said it doesn't matter (based on his research of decades of presidential races).
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 14, 2019 at 17:04
  • I'd take Allan Lichtman with a grain of salt: his claim to fame for the keys predicting elections is tenuous at best. Case in point: his model predicted Trump would win the popular vote. Trump instead won the whole shebang, and Lichtman claimed it as a victory for his model, despite the prediction clearly being incorrect. The reverse happened in 2000: his prediction (Gore) won the popular vote, but not the election, and he claimed that as a victory. It's easy to predict the winner when in close races you can claim either candidate as your prediction. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 18:49
  • @TemporalWolf of course predictions are not going to be right all the time. And yes, the way the system works one can often claim a victory either way. That doesn't necessarily detract from the idea behind the keys. I'm not in a position to review them thoroughly, but I think there's enough research behind it for him to mention that difference of incumbency specifically.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 19:00
  • 1
    He claims to have accurately predicted every election, which is demonstrably false. Given he has a proven track record of fudging the results, I'd say a healthy dose of skepticism is in order. His model has some merit, but it's not a perfect predictor as he has claimed. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 19:06
  1. We don't know who will win. Candidates may think that they can.
  2. If it goes to the convention with no one having a clear lead, the leader probably won't win. The leader generally has to consolidate the lead within the first couple ballots to win.
  3. If it goes to the convention and someone has some measure of control over some number of delegates, that person may be able to parlay that into platform changes or a promise of an administration position.
  4. What else are they supposed to do now? John Delaney has been running for several years. He gave up his House seat to do so. If he dropped out, what would he do instead?
  5. There has only been one round of debates. In that round, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro had breakout moments. Harris went from a clear second tier candidate to first tier (on average, she is fourth in polls now). Castro went from also ran to contender. Other candidates may be hoping for the same result.
  6. The also ran candidates are more qualified than the leading candidates.
  7. Losing candidates sometimes attract attention as a result. Bernie Sanders in 2016 is an example.

Real Clear Politics polling average.

Candidates on Wikipedia.

The primary qualification for being president is chief executive experience. What's that mean? Primarily governor.

Three candidates are or have been governors: Jay Inslee; John Hickenlooper; Steve Bullock. Inslee is a former member of Congress as well. Polling-wise, these are all in no-hope land. They also have lousy fundraising. But they have the most experience.

Six candidates have been or are mayors: Bill de Blasio; Julian Castro; Cory Booker; Bernie Sanders; Pete Buttigieg; Wayne Messam (also John Hickenlooper, but governor trumps mayor). While I personally wouldn't vote for de Blasio for dogcatcher, he's mayor of the largest city in the United States and that city has more population than Montana (Steve Bullock's state). Castro was mayor of San Antonio and has federal experience from the Obama administration. Booker and Sanders are currently Senators. Sanders is the only one who would be considered a serious contender at the moment. Buttigieg, Booker, and Castro are still possibilities though.

Joe Biden was vice president and Senator before that. There is quite a history of vice presidents becoming president, although they often have troubles as president. Consider George H. W. Bush (single term) and Richard Nixon (resigned before being impeached). Not comparing to Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, or Calvin Coolidge, as they all ascended to the presidency before being elected to it. Leads in the polls, although not as much as he was.

One candidate, Joe Sestak, has been an admiral. He also has legislative experience as a member of Congress. He wasn't a high ranking admiral, so I'm not sure that he belongs this high. But military success has led to political success for people like Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses Grant, Andrew Jackson, and George Washington. Of course, Joe Sestak doesn't have that kind of success in his background.

Six candidates who were not governors or mayors are or have been Senators: Kamala Harris; Elizabeth Warren; Amy Klobuchar; Michael Bennett; Kirsten Gillibrand; Mike Gravel. There is precedent for Senators becoming president without executive experience, e.g. John F. Kennedy. There is also considerable precedent for losing presidential candidates with Senate experience to become vice president, e.g. Joe Biden. Warren is currently second in the polls and Harris is fourth. Klobuchar is an also ran.

Five candidates not previously mentioned are or have been Representatives: Beto O'Rourke; Tulsi Gabbard; Tim Ryan; John Delaney; Seth Moulton. Eric Swalwell already dropped out. Representatives haven't had much luck in the presidency. The two successes of whom I can think were both assassinated: Abraham Lincoln; James Garfield. O'Rourke is the most serious contender. Gabbard, Ryan, and Delaney may be hoping to influence the platform. Gabbard has a distinct foreign policy. Ryan and Delaney are known as moderates. And of course, Delaney is committed.

Three candidates have no qualifications whatsoever: Andrew Yang; Tom Steyer; Marianne Williamson. Yang is a single issue candidate who favors a basic income payment. Steyer is passionate about environmental issues. Williamson may simply feel that no other candidate has her approach. All three are rich. Perhaps Donald Trump's win has convinced them that anyone can win.

So who are the no-hope candidates? Twenty can expect to make the second round of debates. So the true no hopers are the ones who won't even make that. At the moment, that is Messam, Steyer, Bennet, and possibly people like Gillibrand, Ryan, de Blasio, Hickenlooper, and Bullock. But as I already said, de Blasio, Hickenlooper, and Bullock are three of the most qualified in terms of preparatory experience.

Another thing is that candidates may simply not believe that they have no hope. Hickenlooper looks around and sees all these less qualified people running. Is it any surprise that he continues to hope for a break out moment where people realize that he is more qualified than the majority of the field? Same thing for Inslee.

Bullock, de Blasio, Sestak, and Steyer entered the race late. They may think that they just need more time.

Sanders' campaign is in trouble. When Biden entered the race, he dropped back a little. He dropped back more after the first debate. Since he's not actually a Democrat, he is unpopular with the kind of people who become delegates and super delegates. He really needs to win at least 45% of the vote and preferably 50%. But he's back around 15%. Even if other candidates drop out, it's not clear that he benefits. Certainly if Biden or Warren dropped out, but they're the two leaders at the moment. So that's unlikely.

Sanders can claim to be one of the two candidates (along with Biden) whose turn it is. So Sanders is unlikely to drop out. Even though other candidates may have better stories (Castro is the only latinx candidate; Booker and Messam are the only black candidates; Harris is the only multi-racial candidate). Sanders' minority (he's Jewish) does not draw a lot of sympathy. He looks white, not a person of color. And his positions against Israel mean that most other Jews won't vote for him. He's not female or gay. His positions were distinctive in 2016, but in 2020, Warren is the one who's getting credit for leftist policies. Meanwhile, other candidates are just as far left.

Now, you may agree with Sanders that he shouldn't drop out. My point isn't that he should drop out immediately. There's still time for a recovery. But that's also true of other candidates without his negatives (along with de Blasio and Gabbard, he's one of the only candidates whose disapproval among party activists is over 50%). If Biden stumbles again, moderates like Hickenlooper, Bullock, Ryan, and Delaney may hope that they'll benefit.

There are a lot of candidates, but there aren't a lot of qualified candidates. Several of the more qualified candidates sat out this time. Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee are as qualified as anyone running. Chafee was both a governor and a Senator. O'Malley was a governor of a larger state. Andrew Cuomo and Deval Patrick are more qualified than anyone actually running. Cuomo is currently governor of the fourth largest state (New York). Patrick was governor of Massachusetts and would be the only black governor running. Michael Bloomberg has the same qualification as de Blasio.

Of course, Cuomo, O'Malley, and Bloomberg might still get included if there is a contested convention. It was reasonably common for someone not running to get the nomination if no one succeeded in getting a majority in the first few ballots. Once it becomes clear that no one wants to rally around any of the existing candidates, people start expanding their search. Patrick has been pretty definite about not running. Chafee is a former Republican.

Candidates also may not have much choice. Castro, O'Rourke, and Buttigieg are all from red states. It's unlikely they could win statewide (O'Rourke already failed in a great Democratic year against a vulnerable Republican). Bullock is term-limited.

I expect more candidates to follow Swalwell in resigning after the next debate. And still more after the third debate round.

  • 6
    Note that Bill De Blasio, as mayor of NYC, has a city budget of around 90 billion dollars (bigger than all but 5 states), a city GDP of 1.3 trillion (bigger than all but 4 states.) So while technically being a mayor is lower on the totem pole than being a governor, I think the scale is rather important.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 10:18
  • 2
    Trump is President of the USA. Bolsonaro is President of Brazil. Johnson will probably soon be PM of the UK. Who needs to be qualified? And you could add that Gravels campaign has explicitly stated he's not running to win, but to get his main topic (peace) onto the debate stage.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 14:17
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    @gerrit - Perhaps that's because qualified candidates such as Merkel and Macron have made such a mess of things that people are looking elsewhere.
    – Mayo
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 15:59
  • 3
    @Mayo Macron has barely been in power for two years but is indeed repeating the errors of Thatcherism (UK has not yet had a chance to recover from that) and Germany is doing quite well (except that it's too slow to address the climate emergency, but that problem is universal), so I'm not sure what you are referring to by a "mess" when referring to Germany (climate crisis? insect death? forest fires? lack of outdoor smoking advertising ban?). I've moved from England to Germany and this was certainly a massive improvement, including politically, as almost everything is better here.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 16:16
  • 1
    To be fair to Andrew Yang, he has more policies than anyone else Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 16:51

The goal of the candidates who clearly aren't going to win, is not to win this time. Some possible motives are :

  • To be a candidate in future years, and using the process this time around to build public recognition and exposure. They get to become a more recognisable name to the electorate by repeated exposure in debates and interviews during the whole process.

  • Implicitly campaigning for a different position. They can make deals with the front runners to drop out and transfer their support (and probably therefore the votes of many of their supporters) to someone else in exchange for the promise of a position in a future government, or government controlled appointment. But you have to stay in long enough to know who the eventual winner is likely to be. Or at least until someone can promise you something they can deliver in exchange for your support.

  • Raising their profile for non government positions. Even a failed candidate can make a lot of money off the paid speaking and 2-days-a-month executive position circuit.

  • To steer the debate or position of their party, by forcing the conversation on to certain topics. This can force leading candidates to adopt policies on subjects they may have remained undecided on, that the weaker candidate cares more about. Similarly there is the opportunity to bring certain topics in to public debate that might otherwise remain ignored.

  • Did you mean "board of directors circuit" instead of "executive position circuit"?
    – Jasper
    Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 7:21

Many good answers already — but another possible reason is to influence the agenda of the debates. Consider the Mike Gravel 2020 presidential campaign:

Gravel's initial intention was not to win the nomination, but rather to inject his platform into the conversation so that his ideas become part of the mainstream.

Indeed, Gravels platform differs from that of many other candidates. Specifically, he is the only candidate along with Marianne Williamson who opposes all drone strikes, and the only one who opposes all drone strikes as well as any US military intervention in Venezuela or Syria. This makes him popular within the peace movement, who would enjoy him proposing those ideas into the mainstream.

Consider the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign: Although he did not win the nomination, many of the ideas he proposed at the time are now proposed by many candidates. Clearly, it is possible for a candidate to influence the agenda even when they don't win the nomination.


You are thinking in terms of winning, and specifically the presidency, but many of the candidates most likely do not. In the same way that people compete in sports tournaments on all levels, including the olympics, who have no realistic chance on being the winners, people compete in politics as well for the same reasons:

  • just competing puts you on the agenda and will improve your reputation. "I competed in the olympics" is almost as good as winning it, and shows that you are in the top of your field. Same for being a presidential candidate.
  • the campaign gives you a platform for your topics. Many of the candidates do not usually have an opportunity to voice their opinions to a national audience.
  • hope - who knows? Strange things sometimes do happen and outsiders sometimes win. If you had even a 1% chance at becoming POTUS, tell me you wouldn't go for it.
  • 2nd, 3rd etc. ranks - as pointed out already in another comment, candidates often join the winning team after being defeated in their own bid, so they might actually be competing with an eye on that, not the presidency itself.

Also, from a larger perspective:

I think having more candidates of a party competing has drawbacks for the party. It divides attention between candidates.

Exactly. It also means that the opposing party can't focus on one candidate for a whole year. The final campaign between the top candidates of the two parties (3rd party candidates being not even a footnote in the US) has in the past decades become largely a competition of who can assassinate the character of the other side faster and more brutally. The more they can focus on one candidate, the more likely it is that they will find some dirt that sticks.

From the perspective of the party, a fierce competition (good for the audience, raises interest) that finally culminates in some - by then - very popular candidate is the best outcome. If you've ever watched any of the so-called "talent shows", you know that interest rises with continued competition as the field thins out. Same principle.

  • 3
    Agree with the talent-show comparison - a large field getting slowly whittled down helps to keep the interest of people who may be bored with over a year of campaigning by just one or two candidates.
    – Dragonel
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 19:28

I never lived for an extended time in the US, so it is possible that I missed something basic - but explaining that could be an answer.

Before the presidential election, there will be an election by the Democrats (the primaries) where they select the one single candidate they send into the race. These 20+ candidates are currently competing to become that one single candidate.

Thus many of your concerns turn into the opposite:

It divides attention between candidates, so the realistic candidates lose media coverage

The primaries last from February to June and the presidential election is in November. This pretty much guarantees the eventual Democratic nominee will get 9+ months of excessive coverage.

it even reduces the number of voters that can make a rational choice between candidates

While you may still be right about the "rational" part, the primaries are all about offering the voters a choice.

Candidates who quit their own candidacy can also support one or more of the realistic candidates, influencing the result and increase the probability of the own party to win.

The presidential election is in November 2020. The primaries end in June 2020. We are currently in 2019. There is still plenty of time for endorsements by those who didn't win.

Basically, it uses a substantial part of resources for letting the own party win.

There's 2 answers to this: First, the primaries themselves are a hype machine which some argue is money well spent. Second, those 20 potential nominees can appeal to a wider audience and thus raise more money for the party.


Candidates who quit there own candidacy can also support one or more of the realistic candidates, influencing the result and increase the probability of the own party to win.

This is what will actually happen.

As of right now, the Democratic primaries (the elections in each state that will ultimately choose the Democratic candidate) have not begun. There is still time for candidates to improve their polling numbers, or take advantage of scandals amongst other candidates - and of course, political polls are not always reliable anyway, so they may hope to simply get more votes than the polls suggest.

That being said, it's not uncommon for candidates to pull out before the primaries begin - three Democratic candidates and five Republican candidates did exactly that in 2016. Those who do will, as you suggest, throw whatever weight they have behind their preferred candidate. Those who do not will be hoping that, as I explained above, they'll be able to turn things around once the primaries start.

Those who end up sufficiently behind in the primaries will, again, drop out one-by-one and throw their weight behind other candidates until there are just two left, and when one of them has an unassailable lead, the loser will concede and the winner becomes the party candidate.

  • 2
    "As of right now, the Democratic primaries have not begun." - this sentence is very useful for anyone coming from a non-US perspective. In many countries, the equivalent of primary elections (i.e., deciding who the party leader will be) is a much less drawn out, public affair, so having extensive news coverage and public debates for a year and a half before the convention happens and a candidate is actually chosen seems ridiculous.
    – brendan
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 15:27

Some candidates may be taking advantage of their standing with donors while it lasts. The campaign contributions they receive do not disappear after their campaign ends. Those accounts - and the money they contain - persist.

Scott Joseph wrote a nice article on these "Zombie Campaigns" here.

As JJJ shows in his comment, the FEC provides "strict guidelines" regarding how this left over money may be spent. Joseph describes these rules as "squishy," however, and calls enforcement "scant."

  • 1
    Can you elaborate how this relates to FEC guidelines? See for example here, it's not that they just get to keep the money.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 13:27

Many reasons. I think the most obvious is, "They think they can win."

Sometimes candidates come out of nowhere and win. Barack Obama is a classic case. He was a first-term senator. He was pretty much unknown outside of his home state -- and probably many people there didn't remember his name. But then he ran for president, won the Democrat presidential nomination and ultimately the presidency.

How is it that Obama pulled this off while lots of other people run for president and never break 1% in the polls? If I knew, I'd be making millions as a political consultant and not posting on this forum when I should be doing my job. :-( And anyone who tells you there's some simple explanation, why isn't he a high-paid consultant and not just some guy posting on the Internet?

So the fact that a candidate isn't well known nationally the day before he declares himself a candidate doesn't, of itself, mean that he can't win.

Some candidates who are low in the polls today could win if they just got the right break: Do something that gets them a lot of media attention, get some particularly memorable line in during a debate, etc.

Others, probably most, are simply deluding themselves. They think they can win, but they don't have a chance. But I think it's easy to delude yourself on something like this. Your friends and family all tell you what a great candidate you are. They have campaign events with a big, enthusiastic crowd. Sure, it's really only a couple of hundred people out of millions of voters, but it looks like a big crowd and the candidate thinks it shows how people are just begging for someone like him.

It can be hard to admit failure. A candidate has committed a lot of his time and energy to running. He's probably committed a significant amount of his own money. His friends and family have donated lots of money. If he gives up, than all that time and money is lost, gone with nothing to show for it. It's an example of the classic sunk cost fallacy: I can't give up now because I've already put so much into it.

Some candidates know full well that they're not going to win, but are trying to build support for future campaigns. This is especially true of third-party candidates. I heard a speech by a Libertarian candidate once where he said that someone told him he wasn't going to win, and he said, "Duh. I know that." His goal wasn't to win, but that maybe this election he gets 5% of the vote, and next election he or someone else from his party gets 10%, and then 15%, and after a few cycles maybe they will have a credible chance to win. For major party candidates, it can be a way to establish yourself as a national figure for future campaigns.

Some candidates know they can't win but hope that their candidacy will be a platform to bring causes they believe in to national attention. I don't know if this actually works, but I hear it a lot. The idea is that if somebody makes public statements about, whatever, the need for more cancer research, people don't pay much attention. They get little coverage in the media. Etc. But if someone runs for president with this as his platform, he can bring it up in debates, give speeches that the media might actually cover, etc.

  • "Sometimes candidates come out of nowhere and win. Barack Obama is a classic case" So was Donald Trump, to be honest - everyone thought his campaign was a joke that'd go nowhere, then he just kept winning and winning and winning until he won the main election.
    – nick012000
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 15:12
  • @nick012000 Sure. I thought of using him as an example. He didn't "come out of nowhere" in the same sense. Before he ran for president he was well known as a flamboyant businessman and TV show host. But he certainly came out of nowhere politically. I was not alone in being very surprised when he started winning Republican primaries.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 15:59
  • By 2007, Obama was not "coming out of nowhere". He was the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, so he had already introduced himself to most likely Democratic primary voters. Also, he had received very favorable early coverage by Rush Limbaugh. Coincidentally, there were major Hollywood donors who were upset that Bill Clinton had not issued a particular pardon. They were looking for an "anybody but Clinton" candidate. Obama got their support.
    – Jasper
    Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 7:37
  • Speaking at the Democratic National Convention certainly was a big moment for him and was probably instrumental in him getting elected to the Senate. But it hardly brought him to national prominence. Who were the keynote speakers at the 2008 and 2012 Democrat conventions? Do you remember? Maybe you do, but I certainly don't and I haven't taken a poll on this but I suspect that 99% of Americans don't.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 14:42

A candidate with even a moderate level of voter support can use that support to bargain for a better position. Cabinet position, for example.

The candidate can use the national exposure to advance the message that their supporters believe in, and get that worked into the party's platform.

Or, they can use the national exposure to get name recognition for a future run.

They can continue if they have financial support, as that money is a valuable bargaining chip with the party.

Even in the main election, a candidate who is unlikely to win might get lucky. In the spring of 1992, George HW Bush was considered unbeatable, which is how Clinton got the nomination instead of other more well known Democrats... they didn't want to be associated with a loss.

Then, the economy took a nosedive that summer.

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