Why Running For President Is a Great Career Move

A presidential campaign boosts book sales, speaking fees and many other opportunities.

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The exhausting schedule. The prying press. The tedious scrutiny of every word you utter.

A lot of sane people wonder who in their right mind would run for president. But there can be one major upside, besides the thrill of hearing yourself talk: A big career boost, even if you don't win. Best of all, many presidential candidates are able to cash in on fame that's largely financed by billionaires and other campaign donors.

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It's no secret that becoming famous can help boost book sales and speaking fees, while creating new types of business opportunities. Sarah Palin has a particular talent for capitalizing on political celebrity. Even though she lost in 2008—and merely ran for vice president—she quickly became a multimillionaire thanks to two bestselling books, a TV show, and speaking fees that reportedly eclipsed $100,000 per appearance.

Many of the recent presidential candidates—including some who have dropped out—have already profited from the free network air time, press coverage and other publicity that comes with running. Nearly all of the Republican candidates have written books, for instance, and most of those have logged sales over the last year or so that were sharply higher than they would have been without the high-profile platform a presidential campaign provides.

Ron Paul, author of End the Fed and several other titles, sold 72,000 books in 2011, according to Neilsen Bookscan, up from 33,000 in 2010. (Bookscan captures about 75 percent of all book sales, so total sales are somewhat higher.) Herman Cain's 2011 memoir This Is Herman Cain! sold 33,000 copies last year—10 times the sales of his 2001 book, CEO of Self. And Cain plans to publish a new book in April called 9-9-9 The Revolution, meant to reinvigorate the tax plan that became his signature campaign line.

Newt Gingrich sold about 86,000 books in 2011, according to Bookscan, which was a dropoff from 2010 when Gingrich published two bestsellers. But the former House Speaker still outsold every other presidential candidate except for Barack Obama, whose three titles sold 132,000 copies.

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The only prominent author-candidate who didn't seem to benefit in 2011 was Mitt Romney, whose bookNo Apology logged sales of just 12,000, down from 96,000 in 2010, the year it was published. Those weak sales may reflect the wan enthusiasm voters in general have shown toward the on-and-off Republican front-runner.

Beyond books sales, running for president is a singular opportunity for once-obscure people to rapidly rise to prominence, as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have done. They can then profit from their celebrity through speaking gigs, media contracts and other such offers. Bachmann is proscribed from giving paid speeches and earning other types of side income while still a sitting member of Congress, but Cain is developing a portfolio of enterprises meant to capitalize on his popularity, including a nonprofit foundation and a "SuperPAC" that will raise funds to support candidates Cain supports. The former pizza-chain CEO hasn't given any paid speeches since withdrawing from the presidential race in December, according to spokesman Mark Block, but before that he reportedly pulled down $25,000 per speech—which he could do again.

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Candidates who are better-known when they begin a presidential bid have the opportunity to refresh or enhance their reputations. John McCain fit that role in 2008, and Newt Gingrich best exemplifies it in 2012. "Before the race, Newt was famous, but mainly for what he did in the 1990s," says Robert Shapiro, a senior fellow at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business who's been an economic advisor to many Democratic candidates. "Now he's famous for what he's doing now, which gives him much more commercial value." Gingrich, who reported $3.1 million in income in 2010, runs a Washington consulting firm, among other things, which ought to benefit from the visibility he's earned while campaigning—assuming he returns to private life.

While running for president can create a quick burst of celebrity, it doesn't guarantee that riches will rain down indefinitely. "Beyond the initial six to 12 months after the campaign, it won't necessarily matter if you've run for president," says Dan Sims, a principal with Worldwide Speakers Group in Alexandria, Va. "What will matter is whether you've stayed relevant and passionate on issues people care about."

Sarah Palin may be discovering the fleeting nature of celebrity. There was initially a bidding war for her TV show, Sarah Palin's Alaska, but after one season the winning network, TLC, decided not to renew it. And Palin has been unable to find a buyer for a new reality show she proposed, on the snowmobiling exploits of her husband Todd.

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Gingrich, by contrast, seems to be particularly good at reinventing himself. Plus, the insider status that's been something of a liability for him as a candidate would be an asset if he were to hit the paid speaking circuit following the election. "Gingrich has certain insights and knowledge, and certain groups would love to hire him," says Stacy Tetschner, CEO of the National Speakers Association, which helps train and promote paid speakers. "Insider knowledge is the appeal of any politician."

Hermain Cain, says Tetschner, still has reasonably strong appeal as a speaker, despite the sexual-harassment allegations that drove him from the campaign. And Rick Santorum's presidential run has clearly enhanced his marketability to family-focused groups, especially since Santorum has taken time out from the race occasionally to be with his own family. "In terms of a speaking career, I'd say he's in a can't-lose position," says Tetschner.

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Since most presidential campaigns end in defeat, however, a candidate's future prospects depend to some extent on how he or she loses. "For people who suffer humiliating defeats, their value goes down," says Shapiro. That group may include Rick Perry, whose popularity fell consistently after he entered the presidential race last August, thanks in part to several prominent gaffes. John Kerry and Michael Dukakis were arguably diminished by presidential campaigns that made them seem like floundering also-rans.

The best way to lose, says Shapiro, is to recognize when you've been beaten, bow out with dignity and graciously toss your support to the next best candidate. Jon Huntsman essentially did that when he quit the race in January and endorsed Mitt Romney—then, less than a month later, accepted an appointment to the board of Ford Motor Co.

Should Mitt Romney lose, either in the primaries or the general election, it's not hard to imagine a similarly polite retreat into private life (though Romney, with a personal fortune of $500 million or so, certainly doesn't need the money from speaking fees or directorships).

The more combative Gingrich, if he loses, may not go as quietly. But Gingrich, who has already built a lucrative post-political career despite a prickly reputation, could end up even better off. "He will have formed a whole new set of business relationships in the course of campaigning that he can probably call on," says Shapiro. "I'm sure he'll do fine in business." It's a good bet that Gingrich himself is aware of that, too.

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  • Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman