Beto Be Warned: Why ‘Perennial Candidates’ Risk Career Ruin By Running Too Much

A FiveThirtyEight analysis found candidates’ odds of winning a major office drop dramatically if they’ve lost before.

By Kristen Cabrera & Caroline CovingtonJune 11, 2021 11:09 am

The phrase “never give up” seems a likely mantra for candidates looking to make a name for themselves in the unforgiving world of politics.

But an analysis by the news website FiveThirtyEight found that candidates can end up hurting their political careers by running too many times.

FiveThirtyEight political reporter Alex Samuels told Texas Standard that she and her colleagues looked at all of the candidates since 1998 who had run for the U.S. Senate, for a governorship or for president after having lost one election before. Thirty-three of those 121 people won during their second attempt. Of the 20 people who have run for either of those positions twice and lost twice, only one person, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, won after a third attempt.

“Most perennial candidates don’t find a lot of political success. And after two consecutive losses, the candidate’s chances of winning get extremely dicey,” she said.

They found 33 people out of 121 won after losing once before; one out of 20 won after losing twice before.

One possible reason for the low odds is voter psychology. It’s hard to build confidence among voters after a candidate’s loss, Samuels says.

The odds of winning may also go down because a candidate hasn’t fixed their failed strategies from earlier campaigns; they take the same problems with them to the next one.

Running again and again as a so-called perennial candidate could also come across as self-serving. Samuels says voters may begin to doubt that the candidate is running to serve the public, and may, instead, see that person as too ambitious or “desperate.”

“The idea is that if you’re repeatedly running and losing, then who are you running for? It starts to feel like it’s more for personal gain than for the good of the people,” she said.

There are some exceptions, Samuels says, including the current president. Joe Biden ran for president three times before winning.

In Texas, many speculate that Democrat Beto O’Rourke could run for governor. It would be his third bid for a major campaign in four years. Samuels says O’Rourke could be another exception, especially because of how popular he still is in Texas. Or it could destroy his career if he loses.

“Most politicians, at least from what we found, have ruined their political careers by running for office too many times and losing,” she said.

Politicians worried about being branded as “unserious” have other options besides continually running for office. Samuels says many have built careers as political commentators, university professors or advisers to other candidates.

Correction: The number of candidates who won a U.S. Senate seat, governorship or presidential race after having lost in one race prior was 33 out of 121, not three out of 120, as was previously stated.

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