The Audacity of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina

It's essentially impossible to win a presidential nomination without holding an office or serving in the military. What drives longshot candidates?

Ben Carson announces his run for president in Detroit on May 4. (Paul Sancya / AP)

Who do they think they are?

Ben Carson is one of the nation's most famous neurosurgeons. He's never run for office.

Carly Fiorina was once the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and she ran for office once—in 2010, in a Republican wave year, when she was trounced by Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer.

Now both of them are running for the highest office in the land, the leadership of the free world. It takes an impressive amount of confidence and a certain amount of detachment from reality for even the most seasoned politicians to undertake presidential campaigns, but that's especially true of long-shot candidates like Carson and Fiorina, whose odds of becoming president are practically nil.

Both of them are trying to turn that very distance from the establishment into a rationale for their candidacies. "I'm not a politician," Carson said at his launch event in Detroit on Monday. "I don't want to be a politician because politicians do what is politically expedient. I want to do what's right." And Fiorina, in her announcement video, said: "Our founders never intended for there to be a professional political class."

That seems like it ought to be a potent argument. After all, Americans are completely disgusted with Washington and disillusioned with the political process. Scorn for the political class might seem particularly relevant given that the leading Democratic and Republican candidates are, again, named Clinton and Bush.

In practice, however, there are structural factors that tend to keep fresh faces from getting very far, and the historical record shows how hard it is to get into office without either a lengthy political résumé or ribbons pinned to your chest. It's very hard to win the nomination or raise significant money without a grounding in politics and experienced staffers. It also means you have to learn how to speak like a politician and avoid all the potholes, while already in the harsh glare of the national media spotlight.

Carson has already put together a string of odd statements, including likening Obamacare to slavery and comparing the contemporary the U.S. to Nazi Germany. As for Fiorina, someone noticed that she had failed to register—the sort of step a pro would have locked down months ago—and promptly turned it into a page skewering her for layoffs while at Hewlett-Packard.

These are the sorts of things that make operatives and insiders cringe. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck noted in The Gamble, their book on the 2012 campaign, endorsements from inside the party are a huge part of winning the nomination, and that's especially hard for an outsider. But they're also exactly what endears them to voters, at least in Carson's case—he's willing to say things that other politicians are either too careful or too bashful to say, and he brags about his lack of political correctness.

Carson, as a black man, and Fiorina, as a woman, are notably distinct from the rest of the Republican field. The GOP, concerned about becoming only a party of white voters, has worked hard to find minority candidates for down-ballot races, with some high-profile successes. Actually winning minority votes has proved more difficult, and Ben Carson's views are substantially more conservative than those of the majority of black voters. Fiorina, meanwhile, has specifically positioned herself as the ideal candidate to take on Hillary Clinton and defuse any accusations of sexism by Democrats. But her business career, her major résumé line, is also a liability, since her leadership of HP was widely panned and ended in her ouster.

In recent memory, it's hard to think of non-politician candidates who got much of a foothold. (Carson's stock in polls has slid from its double-digit peak following announcements by Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, but he still hovers around 5 percent. Fiorina, however, barely registers at 1 percent.) Among Republicans, businessman Herman Cain led polls in the 2012 race for about a week before his campaign collapsed under sex scandals and his inability to deliver much of a policy platform—a good demonstration of the struggles that face non-traditional candidates. Pat Buchanan's guerrilla campaigns in 1992 and 1996 were surprisingly successful, but while Buchanan had never held elected office, he had worked in two Republican White Houses. Businessman Steve Forbes and activist Alan Keyes also ran with little success. On the Democratic side of the equation, General Wesley Clark's 2004 campaign was widely anticipated but quickly fizzled. Al Sharpton ran in 2004, but like Buchanan, he was hardly new to politics.

Historically, the most common path to political success for a non-elected official or non-activist is through the military: Among non-politicians and first-time office-seekers, almost every person who won a party's nomination since the start of the Civil War was, like Wes Clark, a war hero. Among Republicans, there was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and U.S. Grant in 1868, plus Douglas MacArthur's abortive 1948 bid. Businessman Wendell Willkie, the exception that tests the rule, won the chance to be taken to the cleaners by Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Democrats nominated General Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 and General George McClellan in 1864, plus newspaperman Horace Greeley in 1872.

Running for president doesn't seem like fun by nearly any standard—you move around the country constantly, deliver the same speech until you're hoarse, beg strangers for money, and shake hands until your palms are raw. And what do you get for it? Lost sleep, broken dreams, massive invasions of privacy, and a vanishingly slim chance at the Oval Office. It's hard to listen to Mitt Romney's laments about his 2012 campaign and think it would be fun to try. When long-shot candidates run for office, there's often snarky speculation about what they're looking for: Do they want to sell books? Are they trying to score a prime position as a cable-news commentator? Are they a former politician desperate to reclaim a little bit of that old glow?

But neither Carson nor Fiorina seems likely to be in need of money—Carson's a very successful doctor and a bestselling author, and Fiorina was a highly paid executive who took a $40 million golden parachute out of HP. Nor does either have a particularly grand policy vision that might drive them to seek the office, akin to the vision of democratic socialism that inspires Senator Bernie Sanders's longshot Democratic bid. Fiorina seems mostly to be running on the basis that she's an outsider. Although she's recently dipped into politics, with that 2010 run and as a surrogate for John McCain in 2008, she seems to have had little prior interest in public life, and has a scanty voting record.

Carson seems to have strong and heartfelt opinions on some political issues. In particular, he's a strong opponent of the Affordable Care Act, which he views as tyrannical. But much of the rest of his policy vision seems either unconstructed (on a trip with GQ's Jason Zengerle, Carson seemed untutored and even a little uninterested in Israeli politics) or unorthodox (in an interview with my colleague James Hamblin last year, Carson espoused national redistribution of educational funds).

Maybe a better question than who Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina think they are is why they're willing to put themselves through the misery of a presidential race. It's a testament to the appeal of the presidency, and the national myth of citizen leaders, that candidates with so little to gain keep putting themselves forward.