Campaigns are all about egos. You don’t run unless you think you can either win or set the agenda. A lot of prolife and prochoice activists run for office not actually to win, but to make sure that those in the primary with them follow their lead on their issue.

For people who are in it to win, however, knowing when to call it quits is just as important as knowing how to win. Money is perhaps the greatest indicator. If your opponent has creamed you in the fundraising category — not just in dollars, but in numbers and quality of supporters — it might be time to get out.

Starting with the fundraising issue is always an important, honest, objective indicator. Add to that indicator other factors. For example, you may not like the other people in the race, but if you see one person as being fairly contemptible or just a really bad choice, and you size up fairly well that you can’t win, then you may need to consider whether you might split the vote with the guy you’d rather see win, if you didn’t think you were.

Let’s say you have three people in the race. One guy is clearly well ahead in terms of support and money. Another guy may not be, but clearly has an angle of the race to separate himself out and make himself viable. Then there is you. You need to decide if you might be a vote splitter with the better of the other two. If so, you can congratulate yourself as the person who helped get the worst of the two alternatives elected.

Politics is a cruel mistress. If you are running for office, regardless of the office being sought, you’ve decided to have a political affair. And you will be used. If you can’t treat the affair objectively — if you can’t ever objectively see that you probably aren’t going to win — you probably shouldn’t be in it. And if you do get in it and serve as the spoiler, you better consider your reputation.

The sad thing is that this happens more on the local level than the state and national level, though it happens there too. And compounding the tragedy of it all is that when it happens on the local level, your reputation is all you have left — assuming you still have it after being the spoiler.