The late Kenny Rogers wasn’t singing about our presidential nominating process, but he could’ve been: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Most presidential candidates don’t.
Too often, instead of folding, they linger long past their sell-by date.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was, for me, a surprise exception.
I’ve never met the man, but his Yale and Harvard degrees notwithstanding, I’ve long considered him somewhat, shall we say, dense. Yet, after his devasting loss in Iowa, looking forward to an even worse performance in New Hampshire, he wisely folded.
Whether it was because staying in even a second longer would have scuttled his hopes of a Cabinet position in a potential future Trump administration, or because he knew it was all over for him, I can’t say. But from his point of view, he made the wise move.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has no future of any kind in the GOP, also folded before New Hampshire. Perhaps he thought the opposite of DeSantis, that his exit would hurt Trump.
Sadly, that would be its own form of hubris.
While these Republicans have been exceptions to the rule, the Democrats nipping at President Joe Biden’s heels follow the more typical pattern, having already been in the race too long.
I have met Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) several times and always came away impressed with his decency and intelligence, neither of which were on display in this campaign.
Phillips’ theory of the race was that Democrats really didn’t want to renominate Joe Biden and, if given the chance, they’d vote for someone else—almost anybody else.
New Hampshire, where Biden did 40 points better as a write-in than Phillips did on the ballot, should have buried that theory. But Phillips pressed on to South Carolina, where Biden got 96 percent and Phillips garnered fewer votes than radical spiritualist Marianne Williamson.
In a perfect illustration of staying in way too long, Phillips continues contesting the nomination.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley too has stayed in too long for her own good. Her campaign is over, but she seems to be the only person who doesn’t realize it. She’s about to get walloped in her home state, likely putting a permanent end to her public service.
These are hardly the first candidates to remain in the process far too long—the footnotes to history are littered with them.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s divorce from reality was already final during his ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign. An early frontrunner, his vote totals never exceeded single digits in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and Nevada. Yet he persisted through Florida, which he also lost, before the truth of his failure smacked him hard in the face.
Why do these candidates so frequently postpone their reckoning with reality for so long?
While each has his or her own psychology, from my experience there are some understandable reasons.
Running for president takes a strong sense of self. One must wake up every morning saying, “There’s no one in the whole country better than me to run the most powerful nation on earth.”
After hearing that from yourself every day for a year (and usually much longer), it’s difficult to give up the dream just because a few voters here or there failed to recognize your (perhaps too well) hidden talents.
Second, the buzz, whirr and colored lights of a presidential campaign are hard to give up. It’s difficult to go cold turkey after the long but exhilarating days on the trail, the (sometimes) adoring crowds, the Secret Service and motorcades, the staff at your beck and call responding to your every whim, from a briefing on the Balkans to a midnight milkshake.
Bringing all that to an end is never easy. But as the Bible says, and the Byrds sang, “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.”
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.