Most candidates run to win. However, unless you run a technically flawless campaign your odds are slim. 95% of incumbents get re-elected. Even good challengers sometimes lose, but the ones who make the simple mistakes stand no chance. While most candidates want to win the race they're running for, there are a number of times where a candidate will run in an unwinnable race.
Maybe the demographics are against them or it is a popular incumbent.Sometimes they get very lucky. On Barack Obama's first ever campaign for elected office he ran for State Senator from Chicago. On the campaign he discovered that his opponents had improper signatures on their petitions. Obama challenged their signatures and all of his opponents were thrown off the ballot.
Obviously the best possible outcome is for you to win your race, but what if that does not or cannot happen? What do you do?
What if you run to win but lose?
If Barack Obama had won his first real campaign (facing opponents) he’d still be a no-name Congressman from Illinois and not the President. He learned from his loss, refocused his goals and instead ran for US Senate a few years later, got a Keynote at the DNC and you know the rest.
You can run basically up to three times and lose before people stop thinking you’re a credible candidate. After a certain point of embarrassment, even your friends and family will stop supporting you.
Learn from your mistakes, but if after the third try you’ve still lost, politics probably isn’t for you. It's important to assess why you are running, and if you are running for the right office at the right time. The most successful candidates are the ones who temporarily reassess andscale back their goals in the wake of a setback.
What if the race cannot be won?
Sometimes there are campaigns that statistically cannot be won. For example, we encountered a Caucasian male candidate running for City Council as a Green against an African American female Democrat in a district that is 96% Democrat, 80% African American and 65% women. She could run no campaign and be guaranteed 70+% of the vote. In this situation, if the Green really wanted to win, he shouldn’t run here.
Running to Lose
However, in these situations, running to lose can be a perfectly viable strategy to build your name recognition for a future race, network and brand yourself or champion an issue that is close to your heart.
Losing a State Rep race does not make you a credible candidate to run for Congress or US Senate. Running for US Senate with the understanding that you cannot win but are instead trying to get press attention, increase your name recognition, and build your base of supporters for a future run happens with some regularity. Even if you don’t want to run for a future office, it can be a good way to generate attention and publicity for yourself and your business.
It gives you gravitas to be mentioned in the same breath as these big name elected officials and can help in the long run, but it’s important to remember that you are doing this for attention, not victory and to adjust your strategy accordingly.
Running for the Platform or a Cause
If you do this right you’re going to get press attention. Even if the race isn’t winnable, you have the opportunity to use the platform you’ve been given to champion a cause that is close to your heart. If you are most passionate about stopping bullying, use your platform to bring constant awareness to the issue. You’ll have events, press conferences and speeches to get your message out there.
Does Ron Paul really think he will become the leader of the Republican Party? Of course not. Using his platform he was able to set the terms of the debate with regards to fiscal policy, civil liberties, national security and more. In 2008, when Tom Tancredo ran for President, he used his national media spotlight to highlight problems with illegal immigration. Did he believe he could make it through all of the Republican primaries and become the nominee for President? Doubtful. Tancredo did however change the conversation through the primaries and forced his opponents to discuss the issues that HE wanted.