Beware the Zombie Candidates Lumbering Across the Campaign Trail With No Pulse

8 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Tim Scott had an utterly unremarkable evening at his first presidential debate. No one really went after him. He didn’t go after them. He spoke for just eight minutes over the course of two hours, and when he did, he largely faded into the navy-blue backdrop. Even his stans were left wondering where their guy’s fire went.

One poll found just 4% of Republicans thought Scott had won the evening. He tied for last in Google searches before and after the debate. And yet, Scott’s not going anywhere anytime soon. He was the first candidate to order ads beyond Labor Day, and has one of the biggest war chests in the race.

The Zombie Candidate is a feature every four years, a politician who just doesn’t know when to quit. We are coming to a stretch of the 2024 presidential race where campaigns are starting to look less like thriving enterprises and more like tragicomedies.

More From TIME

One debate in, Scott doesn’t belong in this camp just yet. There are certainly others who got to the ghoulish phase of a campaign much more quickly. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who didn’t qualify for the debate stage last week, has effectively ended his bid. Two others who were on stage in Milwaukee—North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson—may not make the cut for the second debate in September.

Thus we start to inch closer to the zombie phase of this campaign, where walking-dead candidates try and try and try to break through, with no reasonable expectation of success. It’s just a question of when the candidates finally glance in a mirror and see themselves as extras in Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video.

Sen. John Thune of South Carolina, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, traveled to Milwaukee last week to cheer Scott on. His assessment of his Senate colleague’s place in the field showed his discomfort at seeing his party remade in Donald Trump’s image.

“We need an alternative to the former President,” Thune told me. “We will see. Clearly, there’s an appetite out there for grievance, politics grounded in fear. But I think there’s a majority out there who are looking for somebody who appeals to people’s hopes and doesn’t prey on their fears.”

Thune offered this assessment moments after a GOP debate in which most of the candidates tried to reach GOP primary voters in the exact way he was criticizing. It was, to borrow from The Nation, “The Donald Trump Look-Alike Contest.” Most of the candidates tried to channel some element of Trumpism into their performance and position. Scott lacked a breakout moment, but he also was utterly unwilling to try to sell himself as a Trumpist pol, even though the polls show such a pander could be a winning strategy for the moment. 

I asked Thune if that high-minded approach can work in 2024, given Trump’s talent for monopolizing the American public’s attention. “That’s the question. Is there a lane? How wide is that lane for someone who reflects those character traits?” he asked with more than a little regret in his voice. “I hope it’s a wide lane. I think there’s an appetite out there.”

Scott’s ace team had flooded Iowa airwaves with more ads than any rival in the lead-up to the debate. He doubled down on an initial $6 million outlay for ads in Iowa and New Hampshire—the biggest of the cycle at the time—and added another $8 million to that leading into what was supposed to have been a breakout performance in Milwaukee but turned out to be rather milquetoast. Scott, who has made his optimism and his faith central to his pitch to voters, can still afford to stick around. After all, he ended the second quarter fundraising ahead of everyone in the field except Trump, and an independent super PAC supporting him has $40 million in ads teed up into January.

As it stood after the debate, though, one statistical analysis put Scott’s odds at becoming the nominee, at best, at a 5% chance. Trump, by contrast, still stood at a 78% shot at being the nominee—even after sliding 6 points in a poll taken after the debate that Trump skipped. (These number crunches are clearly not predictive; the same quants put Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the White House in 2016 at 71%.)

And while donors still like Scott, there comes a point when the cold reality of campaigns sets it.

Four years ago, Rep. Eric Swalwell realized he wasn’t going to win and stopped on July 8. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called it quits on Aug. 15, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee followed on Aug. 21, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand bowed out on Aug. 28. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ended his campaign on Sept. 20. Tim Ryan stopped running on Oct. 24 and Beto O’Rourke quit on Nov. 1. Joe Sestak suspended his race on Dec. 1, Steve Bullock exited on Dec. 2, then-Sen. Kamala Harris left the next day, Julián Castro did the same on Jan. 2 and Sen. Cory Booker dropped out on Jan. 13.

Put simply: as getting on the debate stage got tougher, if not impossible, Democrats not named Joe Biden found compelling reasons to put aside their own ambitions in service of a party desperate to make Trump a one-termer. Those same motives may be what keeps the Republicans this time in the race. To a tee, the NeverTrumpers see a competitive primary as useful, in that it could show Trump’s manifest vulnerabilities, weaken him heading into an expected head-to-head with Biden, and maybe—finally—convince some Republican voters that they’ve been swindled by a salesman. Trump’s unprecedented and ongoing legal peril remains a latent factor in strategy sessions, a not-so-quiet hum that nurses an optimism that compels some candidates to think they’re still alive and in the mix.

Then there are the less-idealized incentives. Staying in the race gets Trump’s rivals on television, which begets political donations for this race and beyond. Book deals, paid speeches, and media deals often come with familiarity and celebrity. The six Democratic Senators who ran for President in 2016 cashed book royalties topping $7 million. And until Trump decides to start punching down in a real way, there aren’t a whole lot of costs to stick around. After all, unlike the Democrats four years ago, the Republicans are not facing pressure to coalesce around one candidate to save them all.

And therein lies the other main threat of a long slog of an unwieldy field: they don’t decide to cede until it’s too late, damaging their own brands and potentially hobbling their party’s unity headed into November. In 2016, both Sens. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders stuck around in their respective fights for delegates longer than some thought appropriate. Cruz made the Indiana primary his last stand against Trump. He then tried and failed to block him at the convention in Cleveland, and eventually bent the knee with an endorsement. His reputation arguably never recovered from the clumsy winding down of his losing campaign. Sanders’ supporters arrived at their nominating convention in Philadelphia ready for a fight that didn’t ultimately matter; the quarrel only exacerbated intra-party disagreements that depressed activism and ActBlue click-throughs. To this day, Democrats question whether the independent from Vermont struck a critical blow to party unity by dragging out the primary.

“At some point you have to beat the other candidate,” Thune tells me as other reporters rush to hear from supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Vice President Mike Pence—all of whom leaned into pluckish appeals to the party’s base. “There will be plenty of chances to engage down the road,” Thune continues, though I’m not sure who he’s trying to convince. “At some point you can’t play to tie, or play to get second. You have to play to win.”

And to win in this current Republican Party, serious candidates like Scott may have to look less like a zombie and more like a zealot.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott/Milwaukee at