Forget Polls, Long Shots Say It's About the Message

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who says he was elected to Congress as an unknown, says his message will give him the edge in the presidential contest.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who says he was elected to Congress as an unknown, says his message will give him the edge in the presidential contest. (By Denis Poroy -- Associated Press)
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

For two people from opposing sides of the ideological spectrum, Reps. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) have quite a bit in common.

Both have announced they are running for president. Both believe that their views on the Iraq war will be crucial to their campaigns. And both are given virtually no chance to succeed.

Every election brings candidates such as Kucinich, a liberal Democrat, and Hunter, a conservative Republican, long-shot hopefuls who announce they will seek the White House despite barely registering in the polls or with political activists and the news media.

Some calculate that their efforts may yield a vice presidential nomination. But those such as Kucinich and Hunter may be driven by something -- ego? passion? something else? -- that leads them to believe they have a chance of winning the White House despite what the typical measures of political viability suggest.

The next presidential election may be the most difficult in history for a long-shot candidate, given the number of primaries early on the calendar and the financial demands of the race, according to primary expert Andrew E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire.

In the past 50 years, few long-shot candidates have come close to winning. But some have forced other contenders to address certain topics, whether it was Jesse Jackson and race in the 1988 Democratic primary or Patrick J. Buchanan and cultural issues in the 1996 Republican primary, Smith says.

Why, then, do they run?

Fred I. Greenstein, a professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University and one of the major scholars of political psychology, says politicians -- including some accomplished ones -- have trouble knowing their limitations. He said candidates exhibit a tendency "where faith triumphs over reason and empirical reality-testing falls by the wayside, and a lot of what drives people is some combination of vanity and lack of self-perspective."

David G. Winter, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has devised ways to classify the motivations of presidential candidates, says the long shots might well be subject to what he calls the affiliation motive: They surround themselves with people who exhort their campaigns and praise their ideas.

"It puts them in a bubble such that they aren't able to look honestly at the whole picture," he said. He added that the candidates also are likely to be influenced by what he calls the power motive. "They would like to be president, but they may not be in it to win; they're in it to make a point," Winter said.

Stanley A. Renshon, a specialist in political psychology at the City University of New York, said: "When I think of Kucinich, I think of windmill optimists. They feel that they have a point that is so important to them and so underrepresented in public life that they've got to be out there on the stage."

One candidate who has lived those feelings is Gary Bauer, the family values activist, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 against then-governor George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and several other contenders. At times, he says, candidates convince themselves they can win, even when the chance is remote.

"I think anybody who gets into this is competitive by nature," he said. "Things happen that make you think, 'Maybe this thing could fall into place.' "

Kucinich and Duncan say they are running to win. Kucinich even scoffs at the notion that he is not one of the leading contenders in the Democratic contest. Told that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) appear to be the front-runners, he asked, "Says who?" (The answer, for now, is political polling.)

Kucinich and Hunter say it is their long experience that makes them worthy contenders. With almost 40 years in public life, Kucinich ran for president for the first time in 2004 on an antiwar platform -- he did not come close to winning any primaries -- and has agitated against the Iraq war in Congress. "I was right in everything I said about Iraq, which is the issue in 2008," he said.

Meanwhile, Hunter, who begins his 14th term in Congress next month, stresses his stewardship of congressional oversight of defense during the past four years, when he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "This is an era when national security is very high on our list of issues," he said.

Hunter and Kucinich feel strengthened by their own political histories. When he first ran for Congress in 1980, Hunter says, nobody knew who he was and he had virtually no campaign money. But he won.

"I learned from my own experience that if you have the right message -- my message was defense and economic growth -- it can overcome the other things," he said.

Kucinich says the political weather can change at any time. "I think it's not unusual . . . to find moments in the careers of people who have been president when people said they were finished," he said. "There was a time when Reagan couldn't be elected. After Bill Clinton gave a speech at one convention, they said, 'This guy's going nowhere.' "

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