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

Democrat Beto O'Rourke at Spiderhouse Ballroom in Austin during his run for Senate in 2018.
Julia Reihs/KUT
Democrat Beto O'Rourke at Spiderhouse Ballroom in Austin during his run for Senate in 2018.

From Texas Standard:

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 had 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 three people out of 120 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, some 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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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her:
Caroline Covington is Texas Standard's digital producer/reporter. She joined the team full time after finishing her master's in journalism at the UT J-School. She specializes in mental health reporting, and has a growing interest in data visualization. Before Texas Standard, Caroline was a freelancer for public radio, digital news outlets and podcasts, and produced a podcast pilot for Audible. Prior to journalism, she wrote and edited for marketing teams in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. She has a bachelor's in biology from UC Santa Barbara and a master's in French Studies from NYU.
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