He has things he wants to prove.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Someone Believes in Rick Perry

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Rick Perry is going to do two things no one has done before, at least in the modern era of presidential nominations. No one who flopped so spectacularly as a presidential candidate has ever returned to try again. Also, no one has ever run while under indictment

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Lincoln Chafee announced his candidacy Wednesday. The former Rhode Island senator and governor is an enormous long shot against former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, let alone against Hillary Clinton, but that didn’t stop him from making the plunge.

Candidates run for president for lots of reasons, even if it isn't about becoming president, and this cycle might be particularly good for producing candidates. But Kevin Drum of Mother Jones asks a slightly different question: “Why do so many obvious losers think they can be president?

Politicians are strategic actors. We can often predict their behavior if we understand their incentives. So, for example, a strong Democratic front-runner caused many otherwise plausible nominees to pass on the 2016 cycle, while the lack of a strong Republican front-runner produced the free-for-all we’ve been enjoying.

But politicians are also people. And they’ve arranged their lives to make it likely they’ll overstate their chances in most elections.

Take Perry, for example. He can look back at 2012 and “know” he was ThisClose to being nominated. If only he hadn’t had his “oops” moment ... if only his answer on immigration had been worded better ... if only he wasn’t recovering from surgery.

All of that is true, sort of. But going into 2012, he also had some big advantages that he doesn't have this time. He was already in a good position in 2011, and he was facing Mitt Romney and a bunch of Newts and Hermans instead of the much tougher challenges posed by Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and others. 

Most politicians, however, have trained themselves to see only the upside. They will remind you about their famous victory after everyone wrote them off. Sure, it might turn out that “everyone” was just one pundit or even just a call to a talk-radio program, but we’re all inclined to think of our successes as overcoming fierce odds. 

Moreover, the tendency toward optimism isn't just about the politicians. They surround themselves with staff, volunteers and other supporters who constantly stroke the candidate's ego -- often because they honestly think their boss is someone special. Sure, some operatives don’t care about their bosses, but many of the mercenaries believe in their own abilities to win any campaign regardless of the candidate. 

Another factor is the tendency of successful politicians to think that a presidential election is just a supersized state campaign. But even Perry’s Texas is just too small -- and state politics not sufficiently competitive -- to make this seemingly logical leap.

In the case of Rhode Island's Chafee, think of it this way: He probably generated far more coverage Wednesday than he has in all his statewide elections combined. For a politician, that has to feel as if it is something, even if it isn't. 

One last point: With the large number of pundits and analysts talking about the presidential campaign, someone out there is always going to be saying that Hillary Clinton will collapse any day now, or talking about Jimmy Carter and how “anything could happen” -- or otherwise providing validation that what is solid could melt or what is hopeless could turn around. The long-shot candidate is going to see things that encourage hope, while few around a politician is going to be passing along the stuff that deflates it.  

And thus Rick Perry. I’m one who still considers him a viable candidate, albeit just barely. And thus Linc Chafee. He doesn't have a prayer, but maybe someone somewhere thinks he does. More important: Perhaps he does.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net