Presidential campaigns have always started well in advance of the first caucus or party primary. The 2016 election has followed, and even accelerated, this pattern. Because of the front-loaded primary schedule and the need to raise increasing amounts of campaign cash, contenders in the 2016 presidential contest were busy campaigning and raising money in 2014. Some experts on politics used to call this competition for funds “the invisible primary.”
A presidential campaign begins long before a contender’s formal announcement of candidacy. In the earliest stages of the campaign, “unannounced” presidential candidates try to build a favorable image in their party and throughout the country by making frequent public speeches and appearing at important party functions. It is now common for presidential candidates to start visiting leadoff primary and caucus states such as Iowa and New Hampshire two years or more before voters in those states choose among their parties’ contenders. The goals of these early visits are to build name recognition, make important connections with party leaders, and create a foundation of support in states that traditionally have set the tone for the primary season.
Another established practice among would-be candidates long before a presidential election is to establish one or more political action committees. These “leadership PACs” allow candidates to collect contributions that do not count against their presidential fundraising and spending limits—as long as they haven’t officially filed with the Federal Election Commission as candidates for president.
The ostensible purpose of the PACs is to make contributions to other politicians in their campaigns for office. With PAC money, however, candidates also are able to travel around the country, hire staff and consultants, and develop mailing lists and fundraising appeals that will form the basis of their presidential campaigns.
The next step is to file papers with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). This allows candidates to start raising money for polling and other campaign activities that will move them closer to a formal announcement.
Filing papers with the FEC usually coincides with announcements by candidates that they have formed an “exploratory committee” to investigate the possibility of a presidential run. Even if it’s clear that the candidates have every intention of running for president, this exploratory committee provides an escape hatch should they decide the time’s not right to run. Equally important, the announcement of an exploratory committee offers candidates an early shot of free publicity that can be repeated later on, when these candidates make it official that they are running for president.
Raising lots of money early in the game shows that a candidate is a serious contender and therefore helps raise even more money. Candidates have to file quarterly financial reports with the FEC, and these are public records. So all interested players can immediately see who is doing well in “the money primary.”
Another important task in the early going of a presidential campaign is to line up a campaign team. Often, candidates will compete for their party’s top strategists and consultants—individuals believed to have the skills and the experience to help ensure the success of a candidate’s campaign.
Of course a real campaign team includes top advisors as well as hundreds, and often thousands, more. Other key players are the campaign volunteers throughout the country who help organize local events, manage digital outreach, distribute bumper stickers and buttons, and support the candidate at the local level.
A presidential candidate’s formal announcement often looks like a homecoming rally, with cheering crowds, banners, balloons, and emotional appeals to family, home, and country. More often than not, the candidates return to the places where they were born or grew up so they can show they’re normal Americans and haven’t forgotten their roots.
Even though the media and the public usually know exactly what will be said at the announcement, the candidate’s campaign makes the most of the opportunity to rouse the troops, highlight the candidate’s unique qualifications and background, and offer a compelling vision for the country’s future.
The announcement provides the candidate with a great opportunity for free publicity, as reporters and television crews from throughout the country draw attention to the candidate’s bid for the presidency.
By the end of the year preceding the presidential election—for the 2016 election, that means the end of 2015—the field of contenders for the party nominations usually has narrowed.