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Rick Perry May Not Have an Exit Strategy

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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Will Rick Perry drop out?

Presidential nominations work by winnowing. One by one, candidates drop out until only the winner remains. A big question mark for the 2016 cycle is whether this process will still hold now that most restrictions on campaign financing have disappeared, in particular because major candidates are now supported by specialized super-PACs. Many -- see today's Politico story -- believe candidates will stick around far longer than they used to.

The first test for the announced candidates has arrived. Perry's campaign, we learned Monday night, is broke and has stopped paying staffers. As of now, however, the team is pledging to carry on, in part because Perry's super-PAC still has plenty of money. Politico also suggests that Rand Paul and Rick Santorum are hanging on partly because of super-PACs.

If the normal winnowing doesn't happen in this cycle, that's a big deal. It could undercut the party's influence over who gets the nomination. Typically, only candidates with significant support and little strong opposition among party actors have a realistic chance of winning. Party influence depends on stable, predictable rules and practices, and if this has changed -- if, for example, most of the 17 Republican candidates remain in the race well into the caucuses and primaries -- then almost anything could happen.

But we aren't there yet.

First of all, Perry could still fold, as early as this week. Remember: Every campaign swears up and down its candidate is staying in the race even if behind the scenes everyone knows it's over. After all, something -- a late major endorsement, an unexpected poll -- just might give the candidate reason to stick around, but no one is going to waste resources on a campaign that is already hinting it's time to pack it in.

Moreover, no candidate ever truly has to drop out. No money? Run a smaller and smaller operation. As long as a few volunteers remain with cars to move the candidate around and provide spare rooms for him or her to sleep in, it's possible to keep going in some fashion, even if the campaign is restricted to a one-state footprint.

Think of the decision to run (or continue running) as a question of costs and benefits. The big benefit, of course, is the chance of becoming president. For Perry at this point, or for any other contender whose money runs dry, the chances of winning -- the reasons to run -- have become tiny. But the benefits can still exceed the costs, if the costs are very small.

Perry isn't currently in office, so living in Iowa won't distract him from any duties. At 65, he's unlikely to run for office again, so he doesn't have to worry about his future political reputation. So maybe it comes down to whether the former Texas governor enjoys electioneering, or perhaps whether he can realistically assess his prospects.

And it's always possible to find examples of candidates given up for dead who then rallied. Perry's campaign is talking about John McCain's implosion and revival in the 2008 cycle and Rick Santorum's out-of-nowhere Iowa surge in 2012.

If Perry continues on until Iowa -- and if other candidates such as Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie also stay in -- it will be an indication that traditional winnowing of candidates might be in trouble. More likely? One or more of them will be long gone by New Year's Day, and the process will work as it has for decades -- meaning the parties will choose their nominees. 

  1. We typically expect time spent electioneering to show up on the "cost" side, but if a candidate enjoys it, then perhaps it can be a benefit. 

    And I've speculated before about whether it's possible that super-PAC money might seep into a candidate's day-to-day life during the campaign in ways that make electioneering a lot more pleasurable than it used to be. We could use some reporting on that.

  2. Remember, a lot of what goes into the decision to run for president (and continue running) is based on personal, subjective factors. For example, just because John Kasich reached the announcement stage while Indiana Governor Mike Pence dropped out doesn't prove that Kasich has a better chance of winning the Republican nomination.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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