The pre-campaign period comprises the two year span from the last presidential election to the mid-term congressional elections. This is a time for potential candidates to determine if they have the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win or at least shape the debate.

Laying the Groundwork

The pre-campaign period, that is the time between the last presidential election and the mid-term elections, is a critical time for potential presidential candidates to position themselves.  Current and former officials and others consider possible bids and there is much speculation about who will run.  A few prospects actively signal their intentions to run, while the majority remain coy and noncommittal.

There are many reasons not to get in "campaign mode" and start aggressively chasing a presidential dream too far out from an election.  It is not seemly.  It is not efficient, since people are focused on mid-term campaigns.  It may not be prudent, particularly if one is already serving in public office or has other job responsibilities.  And, once an individual becomes a candidate there are FEC requirements to contend with. 

Thus when responding to "the question," most presidential prospects will typically state that they are "too busy to think about it now" or are "focused on the midterms" or will decide after the midterms, while not ruling anything out.  A few prospects will admit to "seriously thinking about it." 

Privately, some of the presidential prospects have all but made up their minds that they will run.  More are likely keeping their options open and waiting to see the shape of the political landscape following the midterm elections.  Some may have no intention of running, but enjoy the "potential presidential candidate" label because it draws attention to their ideas or increases their marketability.     

There are many ways a presidential prospect can lay the groundwork for a White House run in the pre-campaign period.  Some activities are overt and some occur behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes, a presidential hopeful can cultivate and build relationships with party leaders and donors.  He or she can work to address weaknesses, for example practicing to improve his or her speaking style or filling gaps in his or her knowledge.

Among the overt ways in which an individual can lay the groundwork for potential presidential campaigns are:

• support candidates and party committees (through direct contributions, speaking at fundraising events and making endorsements);

• find reasons to visit the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina or connect with activists from those states;

• visit other key states in the nominating process;

• make the rounds at state party conventions and gatherings;

• speak to key constituency groups (for example, Democrats reach out to labor or environmental groups);

• test messages and position themselves on key issues and so as to appeal to core constituencies;

• write a book and do a book tour.

Most of the potential candidates have or form some kind of vehicle to engage in their political activities and travels.  Leadership PACs were most common for the potential 2020 Democrats.  A leadership PAC allows a potential candidate to make contributions to various candidates and party committees; it may help with staff or run independent expenditure ads in support of candidates.  A Carey committee is a hybrid PAC/super PAC.  A 501(c)(4) organization allows for nonpartisan education and advocacy on issues, but does not permit engaging in campaigning as a primary purpose.

The timing and extent of a potential candidate's overt activities depend on his or her career trajectory and prominence in the public eye.  For example, if a prospect is an elected official up for re-election he or she would be prudent to focus on that effort (among those in this category were Gov. Cuomo and Sens. Gillbrand, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren).   A rock star prospect with a national profile and good name ID has a built in advantage, while a lesser known figure or one who has not held public office for a number of years may have to do much more foundational work.  Thus two Democratic hopefuls, both longshots, launched their campaigns in the pre-campaign period.  U.S. Rep. John Delaney (MD) announced his candidacy on July 28, 2017.  He focused his efforts on Iowa, spending about $1 million on advertising in the state and visiting all 99 counties by Aug. 2018.  Entrepreneur Andrew Yang announced his candidacy on Feb. 2, 2018; he is running to advance the idea of a universal basic income.  On the Republican side, President Trump announced key personnel to oversee his 2020 re-election campaign on Jan. 12, 2017 before he was even sworn in.

One of the major objectives at this stage of the process is to build credibility as a possible presidential candidate.  Recent accomplishments in public office provide a good foundation upon which to build.  A prospect can work to develop his or her policy chops.  Fundraising ability is seen as an important indicator of ability to wage a credible campaign.  Media coverage, such as feature articles in national magazines, enhances credibility. 

Some prospects may inspire independent activity on their behalf.  Activists can take various steps ranging from individual expressions of support, forming fan club type website or Facebook page, or organizing a formal committee.  There were a few scattered independent efforts in 2017-18.  Efforts to draft Oprah Winfrey developed following her much-heralded Jan. 7, 2018 speech at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards.  There were other small individual efforts in support of Biden, McAuliffe and Buttigieg, but nothing close to the Ready for Hillary and the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee super PACs which started up 2013 and grew into significant, well funded organizations in the lead-up to 2016.

Party Activity

In addition to manoeuvering of individual presidential prospects, the pre-campaign period is also a time when the major party committees put details of their nominating processes in place.  Following their contentious 2016 primary race, Democrats established a Unity Reform Commission to "recommend improvements to insure the presidential nomination process is accessible, transparent, and inclusive."  The 21-person Commission held five meetings between May and Dec. 2017; its recommendations then went to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, and the full DNC approved the historic changes at its summer meeting in Aug. 2018.

Additionally, both parties undertook site selection processes to determine the cities to host their national conventions in 2020.  There was little interest among cities in hosting the Republican National Convention.  On July 20, 2018 the RNC announced Charlotte, NC as the site for its 2020 gathering (+).  The DNC's process was ongoing with three cities—Houston, Miami Beach and Milwaukee—under consideration.

Meanwhile, Lots of Speculation

Aside from the thousands of party activists, political junkies, and pundits around the country, most Americans, facing more immediate concerns, pay little heed to presidential campaign related activity during the pre-campaign period.  The lack of attention to a race that is still one or two years away is probably a healthy sign. 

At such an early stage of the process the waters are murky and confused, like a pond with koi flashing about.  News organizations occasionally run stories that have a presidential campaign angle or a paragraph here and there on presidential race implications.  Feature articles start to illuminate some of the contenders.  While careful study can provide some insights, there are a lot of meaningless and at times ridiculous polls and speculation and the "big fish" may be hard to spot. 

In sum, the pre-campaign period provides a time for an individual to determine if he or she has the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win or at least shape the debate.  Candidates may come to a decision after the November 2018 midterm elections or over the holidays with their families, but by the first few months of 2019 a decision on a presidential run will be imperative, although a formal announcement may be months off.

The View in 2017-18

On the Democratic side, conventional wisdom is that there will be a large or very lage field of candidates.  Articles from 2017-18 identified "43 people who might run against Trump in 2020," "at least 22 Democrats thinking about running for president in 2020"and "36 people who could challenge Trump in 2020."   Patrick Rynard's Iowa Starting Line listed 28 Democratic presidential prospects who made a total of 118 visits to Iowa totaling 169 days from Dec. 2016 to Election Day Nov. 6, 2018.  Most active were Delaney, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA) and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.  (In June 2018 Kander switched course, announcing he would run for mayor of Kansas City).  The potential 2020 Democratic candidates included current and former governors, U.S. Senators, congressmen, a Vice President, Cabinet officials and figures from the private sector. 

On the Republican side President Trump's campaign team grew through 2017-18, his hold on the party remained solid, and he is seen as likely to be the GOP nominee if various scandals and controversies do not overtake him.  Among those mentioned as possible alternatives were Vice President Mike Pence, outgoing Gov. John Kasich (OH) and outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ).

In terms of potential third party and independent candidates, at this early point it does not appear that there will be anyone who would be able to raise a credible challenge to the major party candidates.