• Long-shot candidates are lining up for 2016

  • There's more than votes at stake - careers are on the line

Washington (CNN) -- No one knows your name so here's an idea: why not run for President?

Politicians who would draw blank stares from most Americans are toying -- sometimes openly -- with the idea of a run, gunning for a chance to take on the biggest names in politics and to defy the odds and end up in the White House.

On the Republican side, this crew of long-shots includes former New York Gov. George Pataki, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, 2012 candidate Rick Santorum and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could vie for the Democratic nomination.

None of these potential 2016ers register more than single digits in most polls and they'd face seemingly insurmountable odds against politicians who are so well known that they essentially double as national celebrities. Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite for Democrats, though she continues to eye Elizabeth Warren -- a huge political brand in her own right. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie could bring so much star power to a GOP primary fight that lesser-known candidates might struggle to get a word in.

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So why would largely unknown candidates endure the endless stump speeches, germ-laden hand shakes, pleas to donors, soggy pizza, late night flights and crack-of-dawn TV hits that come with running for President?

"It's ego," said David Johnson, a Georgia political consultant who runs a Republican-leaning firm. "It's a way to build their brand identity. They get a platform during the debates, they are able to advocate their positions."

Every presidential campaign is by definition a long-shot — after all, only one candidate can win. A victorious White House bid is a mystical blend of tactics and timing, luck and charisma and the ability to ride out a crisis.

But not everyone who loses is a loser. A presidential bid is also a pretty good line on a resume -- even if it doesn't lead to the Oval Office.

"For some of these candidates, it's pretty obvious that they are thinking long term about their careers — and thinking about building a brand for themselves that they can parlay into a political talk show," said Oberlin College Professor Michael Parkin, author of an academic paper on how political candidates use late night television.

Mike Huckabee's folksy charm won over voters at the Iowa caucus in 2008 and he ended up with a radio show. He is still strong among evangelicals and could jump into the 2016 race if he sees an opening.

A losing race can still turn a politician into a bigger player in their party, fatten lecture fees or lead to new jobs in government.

Howard Dean, for instance, turned his infamous flame out during the 2004 Democratic primary into a job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which helped him influence the party's direction long after his loss.

READ: Rubio and Paul spar over Cuba

Another Democrat, Dennis Kucinich, was one of a crowd of 435 in the House of Representatives. But in presidential runs mostly remembered for his claim he saw a UFO and arm twirling antics to show he had no corporate "strings," Kucinich won national attention for his brand of liberal politics.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich introduced himself to a new generation of American conservatives with his 2012 presidential run. He's now a sought after pundit, including on CNN, and an author.

The power of presidential campaigns to make someone's name is already playing out in 2016. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson polled second in an early CNN snapshot of the Republican race this month, despite being barely known outside of conservative circles.

"If you run for the American presidency and don't make it, but run a credible effort, you have enhanced your stature on the national stage," said David Yepsen, a connoisseur of political long-shots after 34 years with the Des Moines Register. "Politics is a game run by risk takers and most of them fail. But enough of them succeed. You wind up in a better place."

In 2007, Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor and Republican Party chief, figured he was qualified to be president and was a big enough name to have a chance. He had a set of economic and foreign policy issues he cared about, so he launched a campaign.

He sparred with candidates like Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in the early debates but quit the race months before the first nominating contests when he failed to catch fire. He has no regrets.

"For me, it still remains a positive experience. I was happy that I ran," said Gilmore, who used his campaign to pivot into a Senate race, which he lost. "It's important to offer the right kinds of thinking of policy and programs for the people of the United States — that's what comes through in a presidential campaign."

Gilmore now runs American Opportunity, a conservative policy organization.

Candidates set out for the White House hoping that lightning might strike. After all, it has before.

No one thought Jimmy Carter had a shot in 1976. But he spent months going door-to-door in Iowa and built a campaign that took him to the presidency. Few pundits gave Barack Obama, the self styled "skinny kid with a funny name," a chance of downing the Clinton machine in 2008. But he's now the 44th president.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush was riding high in the polls after winning the Gulf War and the Democratic nomination didn't seem worth a dime. But a talented governor from Arkansas, seen as a long-shot because of his truckload of personal baggage, jumped into the race when other big name Democrats passed. Soon, he was President Bill Clinton.

A long-odds White House bid is also a chance for a politician to make themselves competitive for the vice presidency.

Joe Biden didn't even win 1% in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, but Obama saw enough of his foreign policy expertise to pick him as his vice president.

READ: Clinton backs Obama's Cuba moves

Fiorina, who lost a California Senate race in 2010, is touring early voting states to talk about women's issues and may be trying to put her name into the vice presidential chatter this time around, Johnson said.

Long-shot candidates also see a White House campaign as a way to highlight a favorite agenda. John Bolton would need an earthquake to win the nomination but the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is contemplating a presidential campaign to thrust his brand of hawkish foreign policy to the center of the Republican race.

Webb might play a similar role for Democrats with his strong anti-war views.

Long-shot candidates also sometimes see a White House race as a way of brokering their influence over a particular set of supporters. Rev. Jesse Jackson used presidential runs in the 1980s to win recognition as a leader of the African-American voting bloc, which is crucial for Democrats.

A presidential run can also serve as a vehicle for politicians, like O'Malley, who have higher ambitions but no obvious openings.

Some also-rans do enough to put themselves in the frame for Cabinet posts: former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack ran briefly against Obama in the 2008 campaign and is now Agriculture Secretary.

Other candidates begin as long shots and become competitive over multiple campaigns. Ronald Reagan for instance ran for president twice before he won in 1980. Romney used his 2008 campaign to position himself for the nomination four years later.

If they don't get many votes, long-shot candidates can still damage the frontrunners.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd punctured Clinton's 2008 campaign aura of inevitability for the first time over her debate answer on driving licenses for illegal immigrants.

And some find out that running for president isn't as much fun as it looks.

Quirky 2008 Democratic candidate Mike Gravel couldn't get a word in as Clinton, Obama and Biden sparred in the 2008 debates and complained he was treated like a "potted plant."


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