During the pre-primary period—the year following the mid-term elections—the field of presidential candidates takes shape.  The race for campaign talent and money, sometimes called "the invisible primary," unfolds.  The candidates make their pitches in a variety of venues and forums.  Differences on issues between the candidates begin to crystallize.  Ad campaigns start.  Some candidates pull ahead, and a few make early exits.

Launch: Big Picture

Each election cycle is unique.  2020 is characterized by a very large field of Democratic hopefuls, in part precipitated by the tenor, policies and chaos of the Trump presidency.  In its early stages, the 2020 presidential campaign appears as almost the inverse of the 2016 race.  In 2016, 17 Republicans vied for the GOP nomination with no clear frontrunner, while Hillary Clinton was seen as almost inevitable on the Democratic side.  This time there is a ridiculously large Democratic field, while on Republican side President Trump is seen as the almost inevitable nominee.  The big difference from 2016 is that Trump is an incumbent president seeking re-election and has infrastructure in place to facilitate his re-election.  While Democrats sort out who their nominee will be, Trump has the bully pulpit of the White House and his campaign, which really never stopped, has been building a robust operation, fully complemented by the RNC (+). 

The 2020 race has gotten off to an earlier start than in the last two presidential cycles and is more similar to 2007 [recent cycles].  In the 2015-16 cycle Sen. Ted Cruz became the first major candidate to formally announce his candidacy, on Mar. 23, 2015, and the bulk of formal announcements occurred in May and June 2015.  By the end of March 2019 there were already more than a dozen declared Democratic candidates, and by May over 20 had declared their candidacies.   The field includes six women, three African Americans, a Latino, an Asian and a gay man; there is a forty year spread between the youngest and the oldest candidate.  Among the hopefuls were seven U.S. Senators, four members of the U.S. House, two mayors, and several individuals from the private sector.

Nascent campaigns set to work raising money, attracting talent, building organizations and staking out positions.  As with a germinating sprout or seedling, this is a vulnerable time for a candidacy; negative stories can be particularly damaging in this period when more engaged citizens are forming their first impressions.  Campaigns focus much of their resources on preparing for the four early state contests.  As 2019 progresses the candidates and Democratic voters will become more fully engaged.  Various "cattle show" events afford the candidates opportunities to make their cases to audiences of activists.  Candidates are seeking to distinguish themselves from the crowded field and present themselves as the one who can make the strongest challenge to President Trump.  The first Democratic debates are scheduled for June and July.  Media attention will continue to increase.  Advertising campaigns begin.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, campaigns pursue the vital but unglamorous work of getting on state ballots and lining up full delegate slates.  Along the way the field will become "tier-ized."  Top-tier candidates get prominent coverage, while "the rest of the field" candidates face the challenge of not being taken quite as seriously and getting less coverage and less prominent coverage.  Before the first votes are cast in Feb. 2020 as many as half a dozen Democrats are likely to end their bids after failing to gain traction. 


Toe in the Water or Leaping In

Once an Individual has decided to run he or she can take many different approaches en route to formally announcing his or her candidacy and entering the race.  In the pre-campaign period and early primary period, they may use vehicles such as leadership PACs, 527 organizations, and 501(c)(4)s to conduct pre-campaign or one could say "pseudo-campaign" activities. 

Without filing with the Federal Election Commission, an individual can engage in very limited testing the waters activities such as "conducting a poll, telephone calls, and travel" for the purpose of determining whether he or she should become a candidate (1, 2).  Although there is normally a $5,000 threshold that triggers candidate registration with the FEC, individuals can continue in "testing the waters" mode without becoming candidates provided they do not cross certain boundaries, such as referring to themselves as candidates or raising more money than is reasonably needed.  If the individual does become a candidate, activities in the testing the waters period must be reported.  For example, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA) was among the most active of the pre-candidates in 2017-18, financing his travel through his congressional committee. 

Most often individuals forego the testing the waters phase and file with the FEC to establish an exploratory committee or a full-fledged campaign committee, which brings with it the requirement of filing reports on contributions and expenditures.  Candidates are required to file a statement of candidacy and a statement of organization with the FEC (>).  The committee must also be incorporated.  Once an individual has established an exploratory committee it is likely, but not certain, that he or she will run.  The exploratory label provides time for the candidate and the campaign team to gear up operations.  Transforming an exploratory committee into a full fledged campaign committee is simply a matter of amending the statement of organization.


Timing

In terms of timing of a candidate's announcement, ultimately the candidate needs to "run his or her own race" weighing personal and professional factors.  Still, outside forces are at play.  The crowded field seeking to take on Trump in 2020 may have created an impetius for some candidates to get in to the race earlier than they might have wanted to.  There are other reasons for a presidential hopeful to get in sooner rather than later.  Long-shot candidates may figure they will need more time to build up their campaigns.  Thus U.S. Rep. John Delaney (MD) announced his candidacy in July 2017 and entrepreneur Andrew Yang entered in Feb. 2018. 

At the same time there are reasons why a presidential prospect may want to put off becoming a candidate for a bit.  A full campaign is a grind, requiring long hours, extensive travel, incessant fundraising demands and intense media scrutiny.  Taking a measured approach can allow the prospect to "line up his or her ducks."  Former Vice President Joe Biden took this tack in announcing in late April 2019.  From a strictly financial point of view, a later start can mean a less costly campaign.  Once a hopeful launches, he or she has to give up many activities and becomes subject to the reporting requirements of the FEC.  For this cycle many candidates chose to enter in the first quarter of 2019, but some held off until after the first quarter fundraising period had concluded.

Elected officials currently holding office must be mindful of their constituents.  Officials who were up for re-election in 2018 avoided much overt 2020 activity until after Nov. 6.  Governors have their full range of executive responsibilities to tend to.  For example, in the first part of 2019, potential candidate Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) was wrestling with Medicaid expansion in his home state which forced him to cancel a New Hampshire trip and he wanted to get through the legislative session.  Senators and congressmen must balance missing votes with the need to be out on the trail.

Also affecting calculations are filing deadlines and the dates of the first contests.  In the 2008 and 2012 cycles, the Iowa caucuses were held on January 3.  The national parties have reined in the frontloading push, so the 2016 Iowa caucuses were held on February 1 and the 2020 Iowa caucuses are very likely to occur on February 3.

There have been several late entrants: retired Adm. and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (June 22) and investor Tom Steyer (July 9), and it is unlikely but not impossible that there could be others. Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) announced on Aug. 13, 2011, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) formally entered on Sept. 6, 2007, and Gen. Wesley Clark (D) was a late entrant on Sept. 17, 2003.  In 2015 there were several months of speculation that Vice President Joe Biden might jump in the race until he finally ruled it out on Oct. 21.


The Announcement

Some candidates have a tendency to draw their announcements out and try to milk as much publicity out of them as possible.  For example, a pre-candidate may appear on a talk show or late night program, drop the news that he or she plans to establish an exploratory committee, then some days or weeks later get a bit more news by actually establishing an exploratory committee, and then still later on formally announce that he or she is a full-fledged candidate.  Relatively few candidates took the exploratory route in the 2019-20 cycle.  The most common scenario for the 2020 Democrats was to release an announcement video and follow it sometime later with an actual annoucement event.

A candidate's announcement event is full of symbolism (+).  Everything from the location to the introductory speakers can help convey the message.  Surrounded by family and cheering supporters, the candidate outlines the themes that he or she will call upon repeatedly during the course of the campaign.  Candidates usually do an extensive round of media appearances in conjunction with their announcements.  Many candidates will do an announcement tour, delivering the same or similar speeches at stops in key states.  There is no requirement that a candidate do any kind of announcement event, but it is a nice way to set out the tone and objectives of a campaign.  The problem with a big announcement event is the attention only lasts for one news cycle.  Thus some candidates opt to forego the expense and trouble of a formal announcement event and simply announce their campaigns in media appearances or via web video. 

In addition to those who enter the race, there are those who decide not to run.  One can recall a number of examples of potential candidates who came quite close to entering the race before pulling the plug.  Most famously in Dec. 1991 then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D-NY) had a chartered plane ready to take him to New Hampshire before announcing that he would not run due to the demands of governing New York.  This cycle Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) seemed poised to run.  He focused on his re-election campaign in 2018, waiting until after Election Day to ramp up his activity through his America Works PAC.  Brown "campaigned" for several months on the theme of the "Dignity of Work" before his surprise announcement on  Mar. 7, 2019 that he would not run.

The Field Takes Shape

Declared Candidates:


FEC Form 2
Exploratory
Announcement
Rally/Event
DEMOCRATIC


graphics
U.S. Rep. John Delaney (MD)
Aug. 10, 2017
-
July 28, 2017
-
Andrew Yang (NY)
Nov. 6, 2017
-
Feb. 2, 2018
-
State Sen. Richard Ojeda (WV)
Nov. 11, 2018
-
Nov. 12, 2018
Nov. 19, 2018
Former Sec. Julián Castro (TX)
Dec. 19, 2018
Dec. 12, 2018
Jan. 12, 2019
 >>
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI)
Jan. 11, 2019
-
Jan. 11, 2019
Feb. 2, 2019
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA)
Jan. 21, 2019
-
Jan. 21, 2019
Jan. 27, 2019
Marianne Williamson
Feb. 4, 2019
Nov. 15, 2018
Jan. 28, 2019
 >>
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (NJ)
Feb. 1, 2019
-
Feb. 1, 2019
Apr. 13, 2019
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA)
Feb. 9, 2019
Dec. 31, 2018
Feb. 9, 2019  >>
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN)
Feb. 11, 2019
-
Feb. 10, 2019
 >>
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT)
Feb. 19, 2019
-
Feb. 19, 2019 Mar. 2, 2019
Gov. Jay Inslee (WA)
Mar. 1, 2019
-
Mar. 1, 2019
 >>
Fmr. Gov. John Hickenlooper (CO)
Mar. 4, 2019
-
Mar. 4, 2019
Mar. 7, 2019
Fmr. U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (TX)
Mar. 14, 2019
-
Mar. 14, 2019
Mar. 30, 2019
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY)
Jan. 15, 2019
Jan. 15, 2019
Mar. 17, 2019
 >>
Mayor Wayne Messam (FL)
Mar. 15, 2019
Mar. 13, 2019
Mar. 28, 2019
Mar. 30, 2019
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (OH)
Apr. 11, 2019
-
Apr. 4, 2019
Apr. 6, 2019
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA) Apr. 8, 2019
- Apr. 8, 2019
Apr. 14, 2019
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (IN)
Feb. 22, 2019 Jan. 23, 2019 Apr. 14, 2019  >>
U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (MA)
May 7, 2019
-
Apr. 22, 2019
-
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Apr. 25, 2019
-
Apr. 25, 2019
May 18, 2019
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (CO)
May 5, 2019
-
May 2, 2019
-
Gov. Steve Bullock (MT)
May 14, 2019
-
May 14, 2019
-
Mayor Bill de Blasio (NY)
May 16, 2019
-
May 16, 2019
-
Fmr. Adm./U.S.Rep. Joe Sestak (PA)
July 1, 2019
-
June 22, 2019
-
Tom Steyer
July 9, 2019
-
July 9, 2019
-
REPUBLICAN




Pres. Donald J. Trump
Jan. 20, 2017
-

June 18, 2019
Former Gov. Bill Weld (MA) NY Apr. 1, 2019
Feb. 16, 2019 Apr. 15, 2019
-

Candidates file two forms with the FEC:
Form 1 is the Statement of Organization and Form 2 is the Statement of Candidacy.
This table shows the dates the Form 2s were filed, i.e. received, by the FEC. 
The DNC also had candidates sign a "Presidential Candidate Written Affirmation."


Ruling out bids:

DEMOCRATIC
 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY)    
Aug. 29, 2018 and Nov. 27, 2018
Former Gov. Deval Patrick (MA)
Dec. 6, 2018
Former Gov. Martin O'Malley (MD)
Jan. 3, 2019
Tom Steyer
Jan. 8, 2019
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Jan. 29, 2019
Former Attorney General Eric Holder
Mar. 4, 2019
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR)
Mar. 5, 2019
Former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg
Mar. 5, 2019
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH)
Mar. 7, 2019
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (VA)
Apr. 17, 2019


Seemingly every presidential cycle, there is discussion about the possibility that a credible independent candidate could emerge, but by the end of the primary season it never happens.  In the 2016 cycle former Sen. Jim Webb (D) had a look at an independent run as did former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  This cycle attention has focused on Howard Schultz (+).  In June 2018 Schultz left his position as executive chairman of Starbucks.  Schultz' appearance on the Jan. 27, 2019 CBS News' "60 Minutes" crystallized matters.  "I am seriously thinking of running for president," Schultz stated.  "I will run as a centrist independent outside of the two-party system."

In recent cycles there has also been talk of a unity ticket.  In 2011 the group Americans Elect set a goal of achieving ballot status in all 50 states; it aimed to "nominate a nonpartisan ticket that puts country before party, and American interests before special interests."  The effort showed promise but proved to be a fiasco (+).

Building

The contacts and networks built up during the pre-campaign period provide a starting point for building campaign organizations.  A large pool of talent is available from 2018 mid-term election campaigns.  In addition to their national campaign teams, candidates must also build organizations in key states.  Intense efforts and resources are focused on the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, although some candidates' strategies may involve bypassing or emphasizing one or more of those states. 

Race for Money 

Central to this building phase is money.  Before the first vote is cast in a caucus or primary, candidates engage in "the money primary."  They must bring in enough money to hire talent, open offices, sustain their organizations and spread their messages.  Early money is particularly important, and campaigns seek to put the best possible spin on their early fundraising numbers.  Under the law, an individual can contribute up to $2,800 to a candidate for federal office for a primary (+), but the campaigns particularly prize small dollar donations as evidence of grassroots support.  In his 2016 campaign Sen. Bernie Sanders made much of his average contribution of a bit more than $27 (>).  Most or all of the Democratic candidates are eschewing money from PACs and federal lobbyists, but some have gone further.  For example, many have signed on to a "no fossil fuel money pledge (+)."  Vowing equal access for anyone who joins her campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has ruled out high dollar fundraising events and call time to solicit wealthy donors (+), sort of an anti-Clinton approach.

The 2020 Democratic candidates have by and large discouraged the formation of nominally independent super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums in support of a candidate.  There are a couple of exceptions: Dream United (pro-Booker) and Act Now on Climate (pro-Inslee).  In 2015-16, a parallel universe of super PACs supporting the major GOP candidates was very active during the primary campaign.  

The Democratic field largely took shape during the first quarter of 2019, and the campaigns' Q1 FEC reports, covering Jan. 1-Mar. 30, 2019 and due on April 15, gave an early indication of how they are faring.  Finance reports for the second quarter, due on July 15 showed Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders did well.  The campaigns' third quarter 2019 reports will be closely watched as well.  In addition to considering how much a campaign has raised, it is also important to look at its "burn rate," or how much it is spending.

Besides soliciting donations at events, on-line, via phone or mail, or by selling merchandise there are other ways that campaigns can bring in money.  Sitting Senators or congressmen can start with a fundraising advantage for they have the ability to convert funds from their re-election committees to their presidential campaign committees.  A wealthy candidate can also boost his or her campaign; in 2007-08 Mitt Romney made $44.7 million in contributions and loans to his campaign and Hillary Clinton lent $13.2 million to her campaign.  In 2015-16 Donald Trump self financed much of his primary campaign.  Ultimately, however, a campaign is probably better off if it can create enough enthusiasm so that the money flows in.

Finally, although it is almost academic, it should be noted that there is still a voluntary system of partial public financing in place (>).  Candidates qualify by raising $5,000 in contributions of $250 each of 20 states and agreeing to spending limits.  Matching funds are made available starting in January of the presidential campaign year.  In 2016 the overall national spending limit was $48.07 million.  Major party candidates with any chance at the nomination now routinely opt out of this system so as to be able to spend more than the limit.  In 2016, only Martin O'Malley (D) and Jill Stein (G) participated.  

Campaign Heats Up

To attract money and talent, a candidate must convince the party activists and donors that he or she can wage a winning campaign.  In addition to the race for money,  endorsements are a key part of establishing credibility.  Sens. Kamala Harris (CA) and Cory Booker (NJ) did impressive work lining up home state endorsements early on (+).  If former Vice President Joe Biden gets in the race, he is expected to tout a raft of endorsements.  Another way to build credibility as a presidential candidate is by introducing major policy proposals; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) has excelled in this area early on (+).  Campaigns also highlight favorable media coverage, linking to it and forwarding it on as they seek to show growing support.  In particular, South Bend (IN) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who started as a unknown exploratory candidate, raised his profile significantly following favorable reviews of early appearances such as his March 10 CNN town hall (+).  Some campaigns highlight strong showings in straw polls.  Candidates also seek to differentiate themselves from the other candidates in the field; activists are paying attention to the candidates' views on such major issues as the nature of capitalism, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal.  There has been a lot of discussion about whether a progressive or moderate nominee would be the strongest candidate to take on Trump. 

In a crowded field, candidates need to distinguish themselves and find a "lane" or "track."  As the 2016 Republican nominating contest showed, a crowded field can lead to an unexpected outcome.  In June 2015, Donald Trump was seen as a joke, but he ended up vanquishing 16 other candidates.

Pundits and media organizations tier-ize the candidates; these decisions are based on their experience, editorial judgements and limited resources.  As FiveThirtyEight points out, the definition of who qualifies as a major candidate can be somewhat arbitrary from news organization to news organization; seeking more clarity FiveThirtyEight set out ten criteria, stating that a candidate must meet six of them or the DNC debate criteria (>).  Tiers are not fixed; candidates can rise and fall based on their performances.  The important point is that top tier candidates receive ample coverage, while lower tier candidates have to struggle for attention and inclusion. 

Several of the 2020 candidates flirted with major candidate status.  Entrepreneur Andrew Yang's early start and policy focus served him well; he has drawn some large crowds and made the first debate.  Author and spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson's lack of experience in elective office and abstract New Age rhetoric raised skepticism about her candidacy, but she has a national reputation, did a lot of preparatory travel in 2018 and was able to qualify for the first debate.  By contrast, Miramar (FL) Mayor Wayne Messam, little known nationally, did little groundwork in advance of his announcement (+).  (Additionally, Miramar has a city manager form of government so Messam's responsibilities are limited).  

There are many "cattle shows" where some or many candidates speak to party, ideological or interest groups.  Three of the earliest such events were the Heartland Forum, which drew four candidates to Storm Lake, Iowa on March 30 (+), the We the People Membership Summit in Washington, DC on April 1, where eight candidates are  spoke (+), and Rev. Al Sharpton's NAN Convention in New York City on April 3-6, where about a dozen candidates spoke (+). 

On Dec. 20, 2018 the DNC announced a framework for 2020 presidential primary debates that envisages 12 debates, six in 2019 and six in 2020 (+).  The first two debates are scheduled for June 26-27, 2019 in Miami, FL and July 30-31, 2019 in Detroit, MI.  Because of the large field of candidates, the first two debates will each be held over two consecutive nights, "with the qualifying candidates participating in each determined at random."  According to the framework "candidates will qualify for the first two debates by meeting criteria that include both polling and other objective measures that reflect a candidate’s support, such as grassroots fundraising."  Specifically, to participate in the first two debates, candidates will have to reach a polling threshhold of 1% in three qualifying polls or achieve "(1) 65,000 unique donors; and (2) a minimum of 200 unique donors per state in at least 20 U.S. states."  Failure to make the debate stage may knock one or two candidates out of the race.  The Democrats' approach to handling the large field, at least for the first two debates, stands in contrast to the Republican 2015-16 debates, where polling was the only criterion used and lower tier candidates were relegated to "B" or "kiddy table" debates.

While the campaigns' national organizations set the direction, the state organizations are where "the rubber meets the road."  In early states, field organizers build off of candidate apperances, following up with potential supporters and interacting with activists and local party leaders.  To better mobilize supporters, campaigns open state headquarters and field offices in these early states.  State campaign staff work to line up support from activists as well as endorsements from local party leaders, elected officials and other influencers.

The ad campaigns will also start in earnest.  The Delaney campaign made a significant investment in TV advertising in Iowa in 2018 and outside groups have run a couple of ads, also in Iowa, in 2019 (+), but the real ad war involving those campaigns with enough resources to play is yet to come.

Past Primary Ad Campaigns:
Campaign Committees:  2016  |  2012  |  2008 R, D  |  2004  |  2000.
Super PACs and Interest groups:  2016  |  2012  |  2008  |  2004  |  2000.

By Fall 2019 media and public attention turn more and more to the four early states where a lucky few voters will finally have a say.  While a successful campaign will have focused most of its attention on these early states, it will not have ignored other states.  Behind the scenes, the nation campaign must also lay the groundwork for qualifying for primary ballots around the country.  Each state has its own rules—some are tortuous, others expensive and others, like New Hampshire, are relatively straightforward.  In November and December, filing deadlines start coming up in individual states.  For example, New Hampshire statutes state, "Declarations of candidacy shall be filed between the first Monday in November and the third Friday in November, or during such other time period as the secretary of state shall announce."  In delegate-rich California, which has moved its primary forward to March 3 (1, 2), the period for declarations of candidacy and nomination papers runs to Dec. 6, 2019 and the Secretary of State will certify the list of candidates on Dec. 26.  Beyond simply meeting deadlines, campaigns must work to line up full delegate slates, or they may run into problems later on. 

While the battle to determine who will challenge Trump draws the headlines, in the background Democrats (+) and their allies (1, 2) are working to ensure that the eventual nominee will have the tools and resources to succeed in the general election.

Meanwhile Trump's team has been methodically building its organization.  Trump's dominance means there will likely not be a competitive primary on the Republican side.  He can be expected to continue holding MAGA rallies, and there are still a number of high profile events which are important to energizing the GOP base, including the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 27-Mar. 2, 2019, the Faith & Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority on June 27-29, 2019 (>) and the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit on Oct. 11-13, 2019 (>). 

Exit Stage Left (Out Before the First Votes are Cast)

For some candidates, the months of planning and preparation, hard work and handshaking are not enough to make it to the starting line, let alone secure the party's nomination.  Reality sets in, and it becomes impossible to continue without going into debt.  

Exiting the Race:

DEMOCRATIC
 
Richard Ojeda (WV)  
Jan. 25, 2019
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA)
July 8, 2019
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (CO)
Aug. 15, 2019
Gov. Jay Inslee (WA)
Aug. 21, 2019


Most often a candidate just issues a statement or video upon leaving the race. Occasionally an exiting candidate holds an event to announce the end of his or her quest; emotions are high and a few tears may be shed as he or she, surrounded by family, staff and supporters, ends the campaign.  The speech can offer initial insights into what the candidate feels he or she accomplished and why he or she failed to gain more support.  The candidate may also take this opportunity to throw his or her support to one of the remaining contenders.

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