How the 2024 GOP field got so big

Donald Trump departs after speaking at the Oakland County Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner at Suburban Collection Showplace.

“Every single candidate other than Donald Trump on the Republican side has no chance of being president or getting the Republican nomination,” said Jeff Timmer, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The last time Will Hurd was on anyone’s radar, he was riding across the country on a 1,600-mile road trip with Beto O’Rourke to Washington. Practically no one outside of South Florida could tell you who the mayor of Miami is. And radio personality Larry Elder, whose only political claim to fame is getting crushed in a California gubernatorial recall election, is practically begging audiences to put him on the debate stage.

Yet every one of them insists their presidential campaign is real.

The hottest club in GOP politics right now is the party’s presidential primary. The calculus of every longshot is that anything could happen. And the likely, worst-case scenario? It isn’t that bad at all.

A failed presidential run is often the ladder to a better gig: a spot on the ticket, an elevated platform to run for a different office, landing an administration job— a Slovenian ambassadorship, perhaps—or to notch a plum media contract.

Truth is, the shoot-for-the-moon-and-you’ll-land-among-the-stars strategy is all upside. And in the presidential attention-grabbing industrial complex, 2024 is looking like one for the record books.

More than a dozen people have declared in the Republican field. All but two of them are polling below 10 percent. Even candidates who would typically appear viable have other motivations to run.

“Every single candidate other than Donald Trump on the Republican side has no chance of being president or getting the Republican nomination,” said Jeff Timmer, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “The motivations are bolstering their statures, satisfying their ego, pure delusion and fantasy.”

In a sign of how lucrative presidential campaigns can be, Mike Pence announced pre-orders of his new book, Go Home for Dinner, a tome about faith and family. (A month earlier, his wife Karen got in on the action, too, launching her own book).

There are incentives for running for president as a longshot. Just look at Pete Buttigieg. The former mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana vaulted over better known rivals to win the Iowa caucuses, going from someone whose last name tripped up even seasoned news anchors to parlaying his run into a six-figurepodcast deal, a book deal, and guest hosting a late night show. Not to mention a Cabinet spot in the Biden administration.

“Pete showed that it’s possible for a complete longshot who the elites and the establishment totally wrote off at the beginning to become a top-tier contender,” Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, said. “And so it makes sense that future presidential candidates would sort of look at the model and try to emulate it. What I would say is that lightning doesn’t usually strike twice. It’s going to be very difficult for anyone to sort of emulate what he was able to do".

Vivek Ramaswamy — the millennial biotech entrepreneur who has drawn some comparisons to Buttigieg, with whom he crossed paths at Harvard — has clearly studied Buttigieg’s path from unknown to national political figure. Ramaswamy has even vowed to talk to all sides of the media political spectrum, a page right out of Buttigieg’s playbook.

In an interview with POLITICO, he expressed a desire to get booked on MSNBC’s Joy Reid’s “Reid Out” show. From Buttigieg, he said, he learned “delivering a message matters more than biography and experience does.”

Like others interviewed for this piece, though, Ramaswamy denied that a campaign was a vehicle for something other than the presidency, saying there are a “lot of ways to change this country, but [running is] a tremendous sacrifice.”

Perry Johnson, the Michigan businessman who is desperately trying to get on the debate stage by selling $1 “I stand with Tucker” t-shirts on Facebook, is among the many longshot candidates running this year. In an interview with POLITICO as he was barnstorming Iowa, he bragged about his single-digit standing in the polls (“On Friday, I was at 1.4%!”), hawked the website for his reality TV show from the trail (“first time in history where anybody could really see what it is truly like running for president!”) and dismissed suggestions that he had ulterior motives for running.

“To you,” he said, “this sounds ridiculous. I expect to win.”

Asked what it means that so many also-rans like him saw something missing in the field, Johnson said: “It tells us that there is the possibility that Trump may not be the answer.”

There are more traditional presidential candidates who have been accused of running sheerly to angle for the vice presidency or an administration post.

Tim Scott, who entered the race with few enemies within the party, has been widely seen as someone well suited for a deep veepstakes bid. His own name recognition isn’t particularly high — something his campaign is seeking to remedy with a $6 million ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire leading up to the first debate.

And nearly three decades ago, in an interview with the Charleston Post and Courier, the then-30-year-old said one of his goals in life was to be vice president — because he’d get to “speak more and have a forum to deliver messages.”

But Scott is aiming higher now. An aide told POLITICO that any suggestion the Senator is running for the sidekick role is “insulting.” His advisers have noted that it would theoretically be easier for him to secure a slot as Trump’s running mate if he weren’t running against him.

Nikki Haley’s team has made a similar argument as evidence she isn’t running for the vice presidency, noting that criticizing Trump — as Haley has so far done only gently — isn’t the way to his heart.

The appetite for running isn’t isolated to Republicans. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, both Democratic candidates for the presidency, are enjoying the fruits of the labor that come with a presidential campaign. That includes press coverage — even if it isn’t always laudatory.

And the presidential industrial complex is there to help them: the prestigious law firm Ice Miller, the 113-year-old prestigious law firm, is helping on the legal side with Kennedy’s political action committee, according to two people familiar with its new business. Among those working on the account: John Pence, Mike Pence’s nephew.

As for Republicans, there are even more candidates teasing to get in the race — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin among them.

“I just think it’s all delusions of grandeur, ego, or people looking to bolster their own positions,” Timmer.


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