What makes the dark horses run?

The potential 2016 presidential field is a long list full of long shots. 

Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), has said he is “very seriously" considering a bid. 

Socialist Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Top adviser on Sanders: 'He's always been underestimated' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (I-Vt.) appears to be mulling a challenge to frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Polls flash warning signs for Trump Polls suggest Sanders may be underestimated 10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall MORE for the Democratic nomination. 

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Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is an all-but-declared candidate yet acknowledged in an online video that he would need to “overcome what many commentators see as nearly impossible odds.”

Do such unfancied candidates really believe they can win? Often, the answer — rooted in hope, optimism and the understanding that the Beltway conventional wisdom can be spectacularly  wrong — is yes.

“The presidential primaries are just like the NCAA [basketball] bracket,” said Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz, who specializes in political communications. 

“There is always one sleeper, surprise ‘team’ that makes it further toward their goal, toward the final, than expected. Everyone is hoping that their campaign is the one that catches fire.”

Outsider candidates also never fail to note that the media have a poor record when it comes to picking their presidential “bracket.”

Previously unheralded candidates have emerged from obscurity to suddenly become serious contenders — think former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) in 2008 or former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in 2012.

John Brabender served as a senior strategist for Santorum that year, and also worked for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign four years earlier. The two candidates, he notes, were polar opposites in terms of both Beltway wisdom and the eventual outcome.

In the early days of the 2008 campaign, he recalled, “every poll said, ‘This is Rudy’s race, he is going to be the nominee.’ And they mocked John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid McCain's family, McCain Institute to promote #ActsOfCivility in marking first anniversary of senator's death MORE,” the Arizona senator who became the GOP’s standard-bearer.

In 2012, by contrast, the media spotlight flitted from candidate to candidate, ignoring Santorum, who would become the biggest Republican threat to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, until it was impossible not to do so.

“It was going to be a Romney versus Tim Pawlenty race,” Brabender recalls. “Then Romney vs. [Rick] Perry, and vs. [Michele] Bachmann, and vs. [Herman] Cain, and all these things.”

Darkhorse presidential candidates are often accused of running for narcissistic or self-promotional reasons. But Rev. Al Sharpton, who made his own Democratic bid in 2004, says anyone entering the race for that reason is set for an unpleasant surprise.

Describing the process of running for president as “grueling,” the MSNBC host pointed to “18-hour days, with every attacker and muckraker coming at you all the time. Nobody does that just for their ego.”

Still, Sharpton acknowledged that no one competing for politics’ biggest prize is devoid of self-interest. The key question, he argued, was whether their motivations also included something greater than their own aggrandizement.

“Do they have a broader or bigger interest? That’s what the public will soon see, during the race or after the race,” he said. 

“I ran because the Democratic Party had veered toward the right, in my opinion. I wanted to try to bring it back to where we could address real issues. My [motivation] was to impact the public debate. It was never about winning the nomination.”

Another candidate who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), feels similarly. 

“I was there because there was a national constituency that wanted a new direction in international policy,” he told The Hill. “And whether or not I was elected, it wasn’t as important as making sure that a constituency inside the party surfaced that challenged not only the war [in Iraq], but called for the party to take a new direction.”

But if Sharpton and Kucinich believe their campaigns helped advance causes that would otherwise have been under-represented, the opposite outcome is also possible. 

In a recent interview with Politico, Sanders fretted that, “if one were to run a poor campaign, didn’t have a well-funded campaign…did not do well because of your own limitations, then that would be a setback for the progressive community.”

Not every longshot candidate can claim to have a cause in the same way as Sharpton or Sanders, or their approximate conservative equivalents such as Santorum. 

It is not readily apparent, for example, what otherwise-vacant niche in the GOP Pataki would fill. 

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley receives more respectful attention than most, but was also previously identified with much the same kind of Democratic centrism as represented by the Clinton machine.

“In the case of Martin O’Malley, my guess is that he is looking at the formidable power of an upcoming Hillary Clinton candidacy but thinking, ‘Maybe, with the right message, with the right campaign, I might be able to catch fire. Maybe [voters] are looking for something new but they just don’t know it yet,’” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.

All candidates, Kofinis added, believe “that they have the vision and the policies to make the country better. But there is always a slap from reality, too — and that slap is doing a pretty honest evaluation of what their odds are to win.”