The Complex Calculus Behind the Timing of a Presidential Announcement

Choose your own adventure!

Now that the first 2016er has semiofficially launched his bid—we're looking at you, Jim Webb—the rest of the primary field will likely solidify in the next seven months, likely starting very, very soon.

The timing of a presidential announcement is a complex calculus, no matter which party you belong to. So National Journal put together a cheat sheet for prospective candidates wondering when they should tell the world they want to be president. To those undecided, we say: Choose your own adventure!

If you're a relative unknown"¦

Little-known candidates need to prove from the outset of their campaigns that they can raise money. And in presidential elections, showcasing your financial viability as a candidate revolves around the glamorous world of the Federal Election Commission. When a candidate announces and starts fundraising often hinges on the FEC's quarterly filing deadlines—Jan. 31, April 15, July 15, and Oct. 15. That April 2015 quarterly report will likely be the first big indication of early primary candidates' fundraising potential.

Neil Reiff, a campaign finance attorney and former deputy counsel at the Democratic National Committee, said reports from the first quarter in a candidate's campaign are telling, especially for relatively unknown candidates who want to give themselves as much time to raise money as possible.

"A first report is always considered a big bellwether of your potential to fundraise," he said. "Most strategists will tell you, 'Don't file three weeks before the reporting deadline,' because that's not enough time to build up the nest egg that you want to show to the public, or the press."

Rather than waiting until close to a quarterly deadline, lesser-known candidates will likely get into the race right after one passes, giving them as much time as possible to fundraise for the next one. So keep an eye out for movement after Jan. 1, the beginning of the April reporting period.

Every candidate has to prove his or her fundraising mettle to make it in the primaries and beyond. For anyone not named Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or Mitt Romney, those FEC filing deadlines factor in more heavily to the decision of when to announce.

"If you're somebody who has existing nationwide name ID and familiarity and a reliable financial network in place, you can afford to wait longer than some other candidates," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ran for president in 2012. "People who are less well-known, have less of a built-in finance and political network, probably have to announce earlier to test and develop those capabilities."

According to Sean Cairncross, a former general counsel at the Republican National Committee and now a partner at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak, that initial report matters because it's the first sign that a candidate is a serious contender. Not only does it show how much money candidates have raised, but from how many different sources—a signal of how wide their appeal is.

"If you get in right before a filing deadline, and you haven't raised, or you just cobbled together a campaign and announced, then you're going to have a report that doesn't reflect all that much money," Cairncross said. "And that's always a story, and people are going to be wondering why."

If everybody knows your name"¦

You may not get free drinks at Cheers, but you will have more leeway on when you launch a bid. While FEC filing deadlines are still important for more well-known candidates, Reiff said they aren't as big of a factor.

"If you're someone who has a proven fundraising record, and everyone expects can raise upwards of over $100 million, then who cares when you announce?" Reiff said. That especially applies to Clinton. "Whether she announces on March 30 or January 30, I don't think those expectations are going to change. For her, at least."

If you're a governor"¦

Sitting governors can face a very specific set of challenges while running for president, and that's one aspect that makes 2016 forecasting very interesting. In 2008 and 2012, only one sitting governor seriously ran for president in either party—New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012.

In 2016, by contrast, there's a glut of sitting governors whose names have been floated, including Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Pence. They will all have to balance their national political ambitions with their states' political realities.

David Contarino, a Democratic strategist and Richardson's 2008 presidential campaign manager, said the calculus for announcing a presidential bid is different for governors because, unlike other politicians, they have to work within the parameters of their state's legislative session. The process of passing a state budget, for instance, can extend into the summer, depending on the state.

"Most governors, I would think—particularly those just coming off reelection—would want to get through some or all of their legislative session and maybe chalk up some victories there that they could point to," Contarino said.

Yes, governors with presidential ambitions can be hampered by the timeline of the legislative session, but they also benefit by having executive credentials that are more akin to a president's responsibilities.

"There's no question that governors, in that regard, have more constraints on their time than current or former legislators," Pawlenty said. "But it also comes with some advantages."

If you're a senator...

Senators have a distinct fundraising advantage early on in the primaries. That's because, as members of an elite governing body, many of them have built-in national name recognition. It also means that they are freer to fly around the country, courting donors. Since the beginning of 2013, Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have traveled to the first three primary states of 2016 a total of 15 and 16 times, respectively.

"They have some more freedom and flexibility to get around," Contarino said. "Senators have more of a national audience because they're dealing with federal issues, whereas a governor can often be mostly restricted to the issues that are dealing with in his home state."

That name ID means senators can afford to take more time announcing their bid. However, the behind-the-scenes work of building a campaign is already happening. Aside from courting donors, candidates also need to poach sundry consultants, fundraisers, and on-the-ground staff in early-primary states like Iowa before their competitors do—something that Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Martin O'Malley are already working on.

The political downside to campaigning is missing some Senate votes. Because of his two presidential campaigns, Sen. John McCain has the second-worst attendance record in the Senate. The upside: Vote attendance isn't necessarily something the average voter pays attention to.

If you want to get out in front early...

The schedule of different state primaries can also affect how early candidates start announcing. In 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire's primaries were scheduled at the very beginning of the year, which led Democratic primary candidates to push their announcements way to the front.

"Everything was so front-loaded that we were all in and running like crazy by the middle of the second quarter," Contarino said.

Contarino added that, unless the DNC and RNC decides to push their primary dates back, most candidates will have to get into the ring by June.

"I don't think any of them can wait past the second quarter," he said.

But getting into the race too early can also drain resources and leave a primary campaign running on fumes. Iowa is often heralded as the starting line of any presidential election, but pegging your entire electoral success on Iowa is a strategy that can easily backfire.

When Pawlenty ran for president in 2012, his campaign worked backward from the Ames Straw Poll that August to calculate when he should announce his candidacy. Pawlenty ended up placing third in the poll, after Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul—a trio of candidates that indicates just how un-indicative such straw polls can be, and part of the reason why the Ames Straw Poll may not be coming back this cycle.

The day after the straw poll, Pawlenty dropped out of the race, and Romney ended up helping his campaign retire more than $400,000 in debt. Pawlenty said, if he could start his 2012 campaign over again, he wouldn't have put so much time and money on winning the Iowa straw poll.

"We probably overemphasized its importance," Pawlenty said. "We would have probably been better to do something closer to what [former Sen. Rick] Santorum did, which is take our modest resources and meter them out over a longer period of time to try to allow the field to consolidate a bit before you try to make your mark."

If you thrive in chaos...

As long as it takes to build a strategy for timing a presidential announcement, all planning can all go out the window when your competitors start announcing. Nothing's set in stone, Cairncross said, because "if four candidates announce today, the rest of the field is going to look at their timing and potentially make an adjustment."

"I think this is going to be like dominoes," Reiff said. "People won't want one person in the race with unfettered press coverage that they're running for president, so they'll jump. I think once the first person makes the move, it'll be like the O.K. Corral: People will start making their move. Once one gunslinger pulls their gun, everyone else is going to pull their guns."

And if you want to have lots of news stories written about you, without ever intending to actually run for president"¦

Be Donald Trump.