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Like Houseguests, The Worst Candidates Sometimes Stay The Longest

Was Scott Walker a bad candidate?

Many people are treating his exit from the presidential race after only 70 days on the campaign trail — months before voting even begins — as prima facie proof that he was, and his departure certainly indicates that something went very wrong with his campaign. Yet, I agree with Vox’s Seth Masket: “Better candidates drop out early.” Said another way: It’s often the weakest candidates who stay in the primary the longest.

You can see this most clearly through endorsements. We follow the endorsement primary because no other variable better predicts who wins a party’s nomination — the number of endorsements a candidate amasses is a good proxy for “strength.” Since 1980, the last candidate standing besides the eventual nominee has typically had only factional or niche appeal. There have been just two instances of the candidate in second place in the endorsement primary1 being the final competitor to the eventual nominee, and that includes Bill Bradley in 2000, when he was Al Gore’s only competitor.

ENDORSEMENT POINTS
YEAR PARTY NAME CONTESTS WON SHARE PLACE
1980 Republican George H.W. Bush 7 4% 3
1984 Democratic Gary Hart (tie) 26 3 3
Democratic Jesse Jackson (tie) 3 2 5
1988 Democratic Jesse Jackson 14 8 4
1988 Republican Pat Robertson 4 0 Last
1992 Democratic Jerry Brown 6 0 Last
1996 Republican Pat Buchanan 4 2 5
2000 Republican Alan Keyes 0 >1 8
2000 Democratic Bill Bradley 0 7 2
2004 Democratic Dennis Kucinich 0 1 8
2008 Republican Ron Paul 0 0 Last
2008 Democratic Hillary Clinton 23 31 2
2012 Republican Ron Paul 1 2 4

Perhaps because of their weaknesses in the endorsement primary, the candidates who outlast all but the eventual nominee tend not to win a lot of caucuses or primaries. Only three times have any of them won more than 10 primaries and caucuses. More than half the time, they’ve won fewer than five.

Endorsement Primary

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Those who stay in the race for the duration tend to be those who have nothing to lose rather than true presidential contenders. Most of the candidates listed above didn’t hold elected office when they were running and had little chance of appealing to the party actors to win a future presidential primary.

Walker had something to lose. He’s young, just 47 years old. He could try again. In fact, he dropped out of the 2006 Wisconsin gubernatorial GOP primary and ran again with broader party support in 2010. Don’t be surprised if Walker tries to do the same thing on the presidential level in 2020 if his party doesn’t win in 2016.

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Footnotes

  1. This method awards 10 points for each governor endorsement, 5 points for senator endorsement and 1 point for each House endorsement.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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