How to Treat Presidential Dropouts
Humiliating failed candidates is unhelpful. There is a better way.
Last week, a significant first occurred in the race to become the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election against Donald Trump. Eric Swalwell, a congressman from California, announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy. Swalwell had garnered mostly negative headlines after his initial announcement. He was panned for his wooden delivery and vague attempts at bipartisan ideas. Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate, in particular, derided Swalwell for the uninspiring nature of his campaign slogan: “Ye gods. If you work hard it adds up to dreaming bigger? Eric Swalwell, what does that mean?” These negative stories did not abate once Swalwell had withdrawn.
Almost the same day as Swalwell’s announcement, another candidate entered the fray. Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and supporter of President Trump’s impeachment, went against an earlier pledge and announced that he would be running for president. Steyer’s campaign message of fighting corporate interests and plutocrats did little to stem the tide of negative advertising and comments against him. One environmental activist, speaking to Mother Jones, said,
There was always that question in the back of everybody’s minds of whether he’s driven by ego and whether he’s all out for him, or whether he’s trying to build a movement. This answers the question clearly.
The race’s first dropout can be helpful for understanding the future of its newest entrant. Swalwell is not only an interesting case study in what pushes an individual to both initiate and then withdraw from a presidential campaign so quickly. He also provides an opportunity to discuss how former presidential candidates should be treated once they leave the race.
Many presidential candidates run for attention and air time. Their initial polling has told them that they have no chance to actually become president. Instead, they want to raise their profile and prepare themselves for future positions. These positions may be a governorship or a job as a political analyst or talk show host. A presidential campaign can be a strategic way to work through the 24-hour news cycle and win one of these coveted positions in politics or media.
This quest for fame and advancement comes at a cost. As Matthew Yglesias and numerous other writers have noted over the past few weeks, the money used on presidential campaigns could easily be used to register voters in swing states or help flip the Senate. The money spent on a doomed presidential campaign seems wasteful in this field of limited resources and unlimited needs. And yet, it seems as though a new long shot candidate enters every week, even now that the first debate is over.
The best way to combat this phenomenon is not to shame or make fun of the men and women who drop out. Instead, they should be praised for their actions and their bravery in running and dropping out early. Other candidates and the media in general should follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead on this account. When Swalwell dropped out, Warren praised him for his commitment to calling out gun manufacturers and prioritizing gun reforms. She did not gloat or dismiss Swalwell as just another boring white man. Her respect and admiration along with those of other candidates may push other lower-profile candidates to follow his lead, and then, perhaps, they will have enough time to run for essential Senate seats across the country.
Tom Steyer’s presidential run will partially be shaped by the (mostly negative) coverage his campaign will receive. But it will also be shaped by the other candidates who run out of money and drop out before he does. If they are dismissed or mocked, Steyer will use his enormous war chest to escape that fate as long as possible. But if former candidates are lauded and respected by the media, there is a greater chance that Steyer will find a place as a wise benefactor and spend more funds on campaigns with a greater chance of success.