In every presidential primary that isn’t already locked down by an incumbent, there are candidates whose presence causes experts to scratch their heads. I’m not talking about totally obscure shouters and wavers “running for president” to impress their neighbors or beef up their résumé for a school-board race. No, the true, non-risible long shot is an ostensibly serious person who may well be qualified for the job but has about as much chance of getting it as I have of winning a billion-dollar Powerball drawing. The 2024 Republican presidential contest will likely include two heavyweights, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. But there are several would-be candidates mulling a race who could be called long shots. A good example is Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo is a West Point grad who had a successful business career before getting himself elected to Congress four times, then serving as CIA director and secretary of State in the Trump administration. He’s one of the “serious people” who served Trump, as opposed to the clowns who got most of the attention. But that’s one of his problems: If you asked the average, mildly politically engaged Republican who ran the State Department under Trump, they’d probably guess it was Jared Kushner. Among those who did pay attention to Pompeo, he was probably best known for never getting out of sync with the boss (he was memorably described as a “heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass”) and for his dogged criticism of assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He was also accused of some petty corruption, which hardly made him stand out in the Trump administration.
The man apparently thinks he’s presidential timbre: Pompeo has spent time and resources in Iowa, published the obligatory pre-campaign memoir, and recently said he and his wife are “thinking” and “praying” over a potential run.
I cannot peer into his or anyone else’s soul, and I don’t necessarily buy the standard cynical take that he might run for president strictly to sell books or gin up paid speaking appearances. He doesn’t seem to be crazy rich, but he’s held enough posts already to secure some nice corporate-board sinecures if he wants them. And he’s probably too old (he turns 60 in December) to be doing this just to set up a run for some lower office. Somehow or other, he must imagine he can win despite lacking the name ID, self-financing wealth, distinctive ideology, or grassroots base associated with success in this endeavor. Pompeo’s reasoning is probably similar to that of all presidential long shots who think they can win in some distinct but very unlikely way.
“Lanes” to the presidential nomination.
In Pompeo’s case, it appears he has been captured by the common journalistic conceit that there are “lanes” in presidential-nominating contests that someone can occupy to make themselves both credible and distinctive. If there is a “foreign-policy lane,” Pompeo could sure run in it, stirring the hearts of defense hawks and those who think America needs to be more aggressively self-interested, and more hostile to China and European “elites,” than ever. True, the president he served is already in the race, which makes it a bit difficult for Pompeo to champion a MAGA worldview that’s somehow superior to Trump’s. And there’s another potential long-shot candidate with better political credentials and at least some foreign-policy experience: former ambassador to the U.N. (and South Carolina governor) Nikki Haley, who is reportedly about to announce her candidacy. Presumably, Mike Pence did some world travel for Trump as well.
The problem is that, whatever journalists think, voters don’t recognize these “lanes,” and if they did, the foreign-policy lane would be a narrow one leading nowhere. While foreign-policy and national-security credentials can be important to presidential candidates, the last person elected president strictly on these grounds was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had just defeated Nazi Germany.
The “lanes” construct has created speculation about some other dubious 2024 Republican candidacies. There’s a persistent assumption of space for at least one openly anti-Trump or even “moderate” Republican presidential aspirant, which lifts the lead balloon of a Liz Cheney or a Larry Hogan bid on a wave of hot air. From a national perspective, “moderate” Republicanism is as dead as the Whigs and the Free Soil Party. And while 2024 candidates will definitely argue they can advance MAGA principles better than Trump at this moment in history, no viable candidate will be anti-Trump in the sense of criticizing his administration or disputing his makeover of conservative ideology.
But there are some other paths less taken to the presidency that don’t involve the concept of lanes at all, each with limited historic precedent:
Surviving a demolition derby.
Someone like Haley, Pence, or even Tim Scott or Glenn Youngkin might slog along as an unoffensive second-tier candidate who suddenly catches fire as the more prominent contenders damage one another irredeemably, leaving the party dispirited and divided.
At the presidential level, this happened as recently as 2008. John McCain, struggling with staff conflicts after burning through all his money, nearly dropped out of the race before voters weighed in, as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney soared in the “invisible primary” of polls and hype. Giuliani skipped Iowa as a strategic decision, and McCain did so to save money. Romney was upset there by Mike Huckabee, who couldn’t raise money and didn’t win another major state. Giuliani was hammered by conservatives for his heresies on abortion and gay rights and never really got going. Romney stumbled again in South Carolina and Florida, and McCain, who was acceptable to most Republicans and better known than most of the candidates, picked up the pieces.
Perhaps learning from experience, Romney survived another demolition derby in 2012 as the candidacies of Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich serially imploded, leaving Romney facing an outgunned Rick Santorum for the nomination.
These examples show it takes skill as well as luck to win a political demolition derby. But skill does matter. Both McCain and Romney had run for president before, unlike Scott and Youngkin, who are more likely to be casualties than survivors in a high-speed contest full of spills and collisions.
Shocking the world.
There are a few, and only a few, examples of presidential candidates seemingly coming out of nowhere to upset all calculations and defeat rivals with more conventional assets. The fact that one of these examples occurred very recently could make the odds of it happening again soon seem more likely than it really is.
In 2016, Trump seemed to be playing chess while his many rivals were playing checkers. As his competitors battled one another for the chance to get a one-on-one encounter with the lightly regarded real-estate mogul and TV celebrity, Trump drew voters who viewed him as attractive precisely because he broke all the rules and defied the “elites” in both parties. Most Republican opinion leaders, and most definitely the nation’s media, thought Trump’s television and tabloid fame was a handicap rather than an asset: Didn’t voters realize he was a buffoon? They didn’t, or they did and gloried in his excesses, taking him “seriously but not literally” even as rivals and other “experts” waited for his candidacy to implode.
Something almost as shocking happened in the Democratic presidential-nominating contest 40 years earlier, as an obscure one-term southern governor who wasn’t even terribly popular in his home state won the prize through a combination of mastery of the nominating process (he was the first major candidate to understand the potential value of Iowa), regional appeal (he vanquished the much-feared racist demagogue George Wallace, then won over most of Wallace’s supporters in a mind-bending coalition with civil-rights activists), and exploitation of anti–Washington, D.C., sentiment in the days after Watergate. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 nomination was every bit as unlikely as Trump’s precisely because the peanut farmer had none of Trump’s celebrity.
Examining the potential 2024 Republican field, it’s hard to discern anyone who is planning the kind of campaign that might successfully overturn the conventional wisdom and make us rethink our understanding of the GOP or the nominating process. To this point, all the candidates (other than Trump) appear to be promoting some variation on an amalgam of traditional conservatism and MAGA populism. And while Democrats are experimenting this year with modifications of the primary calendar, Republicans appear determined to stand pat. The only Republican aspirant who appears to be running with an unorthodox strategy is, oddly enough, the front-runner, as Trump tries to replay the tapes of his 2016 campaign.
A brokered nomination.
Some 2024 Republican presidential candidates may be gambling that the field will be so large and destabilizing that no one will lock down the nomination in the primaries, leading to the pundit’s eternal delight: a brokered convention. These have happened in the past, quite obviously, though not since 1972, when state primaries and caucuses universally took hold to give voters, rather than elected officials, the whip hand in choosing presidential nominees.
Back in the days when national political conventions often opened with multiple viable candidates (including “favorite sons” who were sometimes stalking horses for power brokers but sometimes serious candidates), lots of unpledged delegates, and plenty of intrigue, deadlocked conventions could and did happen (particularly among Democrats, who required two-thirds of the delegates for a presidential nomination prior to 1936). Most famously, in 1920, a “smoke-filled room” of Republican leaders in Chicago gave America the tainted gift of President Warren G. Harding, a pure compromise candidate. Four years after that, Democrats in New York exhausted themselves over 103 ballots before nominating an obscure ambassador named John W. Davis. As recently as 1940, the galleries (egged on by a media campaign) stampeded Republican delegates into nominating a utility executive named Wendell Willkie.
Maybe one of the less imposing 2024 Republican candidates has had a mystical vision of something like a draft or a grand compromise happening again. But, more likely, all but a couple of them will soon join the ranks of politicians who, one morning, saw a president of the United States in the bathroom mirror and just had to give it a try. An impulse and sheer ego can sustain a delusion for a very long time.