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What Are They Thinking?

The many (possible) motivations of the GOP's many 2016 candidates

Scott Olson

The list of Republican presidential candidates seems to be getting longer by the day. On Wednesday, Rick Santorum entered the race, and on Thursday, former New York Governor George Pataki is expected to do the same. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, now counts 18 likely contenders. And yet, only a few have much of a real chance of winning: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio lead the pack, followed by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

So why, if you're Pataki, run at all?

“Pataki—I’m puzzled about this,” Sabato told the New Yorker last month. “I don’t even know what he’s been doing. Has he been on corporate boards?”

Indeed, Pataki hasn't held office since 2006, and he declined to run for president in the past two cycles. But a number of other 2016 entrants are equally puzzling: Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, who has never held public office; Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and Tea Party favorite; Mike Huckabee, the ex-Arkansas governor. Even Donald Trump is threatening to run.

Why run as a dead-in-the-water candidate? Maybe God tapped them to run (“I feel fingers,” said Carson). Maybe they want to influence the public policy debate. Maybe they want to return to the spotlight. Or maybe they genuinely believe they can win. After all, in 2012, five different candidates held the lead at some point, including pizza mogul Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mitt Romney won, as expected, but for a while there—especially after Santorum’s early wins in Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri—2012 looked like it could be anyone’s election.

But there are other motivations, too. As four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader recently explained: “You can fatten your mailing list and your Rolodex for future opportunities. These can include lucrative jobs, retainers, paid speeches or book advances.” Other potential motivatations include selling books, booking speaking gigs, getting a coveted appointment, or just getting an old-fashioned ego boost.

Pataki, for instance, is on a few corporate boards, like the environmental consulting firm he formed called the Pataki-Cahill group, and serves as a counsel for the law firm Chadbourne in New York. He’s represented by the Greater Talent Network. In 1998, Pataki ran into trouble for collecting $17,000 per speech while in office, but it's not clear that he's given any recent paid speeches: Speakerpedia, which has multiple speech reports for all of the candidates below, has zero for Pataki.

After 2012, Santorum created a movie production company, EchoLight, which produces Christian films featuring the likes of Corbin Bernsen and Brian Dennehy. Last year, Santorum released Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works, a campaign manifesto masquerading as a book. On top of that, he had $455,000 in 2012 campaign debts as of March. To pay the bills, he rented out his list of supporters for a total $37,000 this year, according to the Center for Public Integrity. He also gets paid up to $25,000 per speech, according to Speakerpedia.

Huckabee knows this tactic well. He’s rented his email list of supporters to a group that claimed to have found the cure to cancer in a verse of the Bible. His last bid for president in 2008 paid off well, earning him his own show on Fox News that he ended this year. Speakerpedia says he makes as much as $50,000 per speech.

Carly Fiorina, whose 2010 Senate bid failed, is a popular speaker as well; she's represented by the Celebrity Speakers Bureau and reportedly can top $100,000 per speech. Her latest book, Rising to the Challenge, came out the same week in May that she announced her candidacy. Many believe Fiorina is vying to be the vice presidential pick (she’s a long shot for that, too), which she denies.

Ben Carson has no less than six books to hawk, the most recent of which, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Succeed, came out in 2014. And according to National Review, "the possible Republican candidate’s schedule includes paid speaking engagements running into the autumn of 2015 — many months after he’s expected to declare his official candidacy." Those engagements may pay as much as $50,000 each.

As for Donald Trump—well, maybe he just wants a few million more Twitter followers to troll.