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Why are all these random Republicans running for president?


The 2024 Republican field expanded this week with the entry of three new presidential candidates: former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. All three are polling at the bottom of the now nine-candidate field, raising the question: Why would any of them enter a race that seems impossible to win?

The short answer is that they may think they can beat the odds. That might seem delusional given both Pence and Christie are polling in the low single digits, and Burgum is so little-known that he hasn’t even been poll-tested. But they’re holding out hope that they could become the definitive alternative to the current frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is consistently polling in second, flames out.

“For all these guys, it’s a very, very, very steep climb. But if DeSantis stumbles, somebody will fill that vacuum,” said Chris Russell, a GOP strategist based in New Jersey.

That’s not an impossibility given that DeSantis has had a rocky few months. His campaign launch was defined by technical glitches and an overly online message that seemed impenetrable to most rank-and-file Republicans. There are growing concerns among donors that he’s just not that good at retail politics and that he’s already doomed himself among general election voters by embracing right-wing policies on issues such as abortion.

If DeSantis’s issues continue, second-tier GOP candidates — which also include former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy — could catch a break. It wouldn’t be the first time a long-shot candidate was suddenly catapulted into viability: At this point in the primary eight years ago, Trump was polling at 1 percent, while Jeb Bush had a double-digit lead and Scott Walker was in second. Walker later dropped out before the Iowa caucuses, the first on the Republican primary calendar, and Trump killed Bush’s campaign by dubbing him “Low-Energy Jeb.”

The difference between 2016 and this year is Trump’s stranglehold on his base. He remains the leader of his party and is polling at over 50 percent, with DeSantis about 30 percentage points behind. That lead increased after he was indicted in New York, and it’s unclear whether his trajectory will change given the additional criminal charges Trump said he faces on Thursday night in a separate criminal case concerning his alleged withholding of classified documents.

Taking down DeSantis is one thing; taking out Trump is another. But the other Republican hopefuls are looking to history when they say anything can happen. Regardless of the polls, they seem to truly believe that they have a shot, though if they were to lose, some (except for maybe Pence) would welcome any consolation prizes, including positions of vice president or in the Cabinet.

“I think all these guys think to themselves, ‘Why not me?’” Russell said.

Pence’s and Burgum’s campaigns seem like uphill battles

Of the three new entries in the race, Michael DuHaime, a GOP strategist based in New Jersey, thinks that Christie has the best chance of breaking through. That might be an unsurprising opinion coming from a former top adviser to Christie. But it’s also true that Pence and Burgum have some problems Christie lacks, which means they don’t really have a plausible path to the nomination.

Pence’s unfavorability ratings, even among Republicans, are through the roof. In a series of recent polls, well over half of voters said that they viewed him unfavorably. He had 39 percent favorability in his best poll, from Fox News, and 29 percent in his worst, from the Wall Street Journal. That’s historically bad for a presidential candidate who previously served as vice president.

His decision to certify the results of the 2020 election and his criticism of Trump’s actions during the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol was the turning point: Despite being viewed favorably by his party during his tenure as vice president, his approval ratings took a nosedive thereafter and never revived.

Pence has nevertheless dug in his heels in criticizing the insurrection and attacking Trump. At his campaign launch in Iowa Wednesday, he said, “I believe anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.”

And during a CNN town hall Wednesday, he said that he had no interest in pardoning insurrectionists (but declined to say whether he would pardon Trump). When asked whether he would support Trump if he wins the nomination, he said, “I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee. I have great confidence in Republican primary voters.”

Those critiques will make it difficult for Pence to win over voters who still view Trump and the insurrectionists favorably. But Pence is also likely to have trouble finding support among those ready to move on from Trump. He worked for the former president for four years; that’s turning off the “Never Trump” segment of the party and would probably be an issue for swing voters in the general election. So it’s hard for him to make the case for his electability.

Still, he persists. A prominent evangelical, Pence sees his campaign for president as a spiritual journey in addition to a political one, and his advisers believe he can vanquish the other second-tier GOP candidates and emerge victorious if Trump and DeSantis self-destruct, as Adam Wren writes in Politico. But that is a very large if, and sheer self-belief doesn’t make someone president. All those qualifiers have made big donors including the Koch network appear skeptical of his bid.

Burgum’s problem, on the other hand, isn’t that voters don’t like him; it’s that they’ve never heard of him.

His favorability ratings are high in North Dakota, but he doesn’t have the national name recognition of some of his GOP rivals. His entry into the race might be a symptom of the fact that he’s hit his “ceiling for rising in North Dakota politics,” given that he’s term-limited and would have a hard time trying to unseat North Dakota’s incumbent Republicans in the US Senate, said Mark Jendrysik, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota.

Burgum is hoping he can differentiate himself from the pack as a free market entrepreneur, touting his experience leading Great Plains Software, which went public in 1997 and was sold to Microsoft in 2001 for $1.1 billion in stock. His proceeds from that deal mean he’ll likely be able to self-fund his campaign through the early stages, but he would need to pick up serious donor support to stay viable after the first primaries.

“He’s going to have to spend a lot of money just telling people who he is,” Jendrysik said. “It might be that he’s trying to raise his profile, but it just seems like a very expensive way to do that.”

Burgum might believe that there is an avenue for a “non-confrontational, competent business leader,” Jendrysik added, but that might not be enough to resonate given the current preferences of Republican primary voters who clearly still love Trump and his red-meat politics. His aides are betting that his business network will help yield major donors, but upon announcing his candidacy, he didn’t have the support of any super PAC or outside group. That leaves Burgum, at least for now, waiting for Trump and DeSantis to somehow be taken out of the running.

Does Christie have an opening, or just a bone to pick with Trump?

Christie insists he sees a path to the nomination, however narrow that may be. But at least on some level, he also seems motivated to take down Trump and believes he’s the best person to do it: “You need to think about who’s got the skill to do that and who’s got the guts to do it because it’s not going to end nicely no matter what,” he said in March.

Once a Trump defender, he’s said he was “wrong” about the former president and that election night 2020 was the “breaking point” in their relationship.

Christie has already proved willing to go head-to-head with the former president, offering criticism of his reluctance to debate and unwillingness to accept the results of the 2020 election, and calling him a “coward” and “puppet of Putin.” He’s said that he wouldn’t support Trump even if the former president wins the Republican nomination in 2024. “Beware of the leader in this country, who you have handed leadership to, who has never made a mistake, who has never done anything wrong, who when something goes wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. And who has never lost,” Christie said of Trump Tuesday.

It’s a remarkable 180-degree turn for someone who briefly headed Trump’s White House transition team and helped him prepare for debates in 2020. And it’s attracting Trump’s ire — and therefore earning Christie the media attention he wants. On Tuesday, Trump responded to Christie’s attacks with a jab about the former governor’s weight, which Christie called “childish.”

Russell said it’s Christie’s bombastic style that puts him in a different class than other GOP rivals who have taken an anti-Trump stance, including Pence. Christie has publicly reminded his Republican colleagues about how he took down Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the presidential debate stage in 2016 and says that somebody needs to do the same to Trump.

“The one thing he does bring to the race that probably nobody else does or that at least he does better than everybody else: He’s a really high-level communicator and he’s not afraid to throw a punch,” he said. “He is incredibly charismatic. His debating skills and media skills are nonparallel in a lot of ways.”

Those skills may end up benefiting other candidates as well, especially those who might be hesitant to directly attack the former president. If Christie becomes the attack dog, he can do the dirty work for them.

“I don’t doubt that he will land some blows on Trump,” Russell said. “I could see him as potentially a kamikaze pilot of sorts that does damage to Trump and helps [the other GOP contenders] get closer.”

That might be the most likely, though not preferred, outcome for someone who came in sixth the last time he ran for president. But Christie might still take that loss as a win. His previous support of Trump has seemingly brought him nothing but misery; now, he might want to inflict a little of his own.

Overall, it remains possible, though perhaps unlikely, that some confluence of events radically reshapes the race. That has candidates at the bottom of the polls waiting, hoping, and looking for their chance.

“There’s an opportunity right now for one of these candidates to break through,” DuHaime said. “It seemed like it might be a two-person race six months ago, but DeSantis has been very disappointing in the runup to and the start of his candidacy. That has donors and voters looking for a third alternative.”

Source: vox