During the pre-primary period—the year following the mid-term elections—the field of presidential candidates takes shape.  The race for money and campaign talent unfolds.  There are numerous debates and forums, and differences on issues between the candidates begin to crystallize.  Ad campaigns start.  And, a few candidates make early exits.

Launch: Big Picture [graphic]

Each cycle is unique.  2008 was hypercharged due to wide open races in both parties, and there were a lot of candidate announcements in January and February 2007.  This cycle, as potential candidates showed no rush to announce, there was a fair amount of talk about how the 2012 cycle was off to "a slow start."  Finally by April and May 2011 a rash of candidate announcements occurred and other prominent prospects removed themselves from consideration.

There are a number of reasons why prospects put off announcements.  From a strictly financial point of view, a later start can mean a less costly campaign.  A full campaign is a grind requiring long hours, extensive travel and incessant fundraising demands.  Once a hopeful launches, he or she has to give up many activities and becomes subject to the reporting requirements of the FEC. (1, 2, 3)  Potential candidates may also have wanted to allow voters a bit of a respite following the intense 2010 mid-terms.  Additionally, if all goes as planned the 2012 contests will start a month later than did the 2008 cycle, and due to changes in Republican rules their nominating contest may spread out over a longer period of time. 

In recent cycles there have been a few late entrants; former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) formally entered on Sept. 6, 2007, Gen. Wesley Clark was a late entrant on Sept. 17, 2003 and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) established an exploratory committee on July 1, 1999. (2008, 2000)  Then Gov. Bill Clinton announced his candidacy on Oct. 2, 1991. 

Declared candidates (see also: The Field Takes Shape)

- President Barack Obama                                  
- Gov. Rick Perry
- Former Gov. Buddy Roemer
- Rep. Thaddeus McCotter
- Former Gov. Jon Huntsman
- Rep. Michele Bachmann
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum
- Former Gov. Mitt Romney
- Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty                               
- Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain  
- Rep. Ron Paul                                                  
- Former Speaker Newt Gingrich                        
- Former Gov. Gary Johnson                               
- Gay activist Fred Karger                         
April 4, 2011 +
Aug. 13, 2011 +
July 21, 2011 +
July 2, 2011
June 21, 2011 +
June 13, 2011 + ...June 27, 2011 +
June 6, 2011 +
June 2, 2011 +
May 23, 2011 +
May 21, 2011 +
May 13, 2011 +
May 11, 2011 +
April 21, 2011 +
March 23, 2011 +

Exploratory/testing the waters* efforts:

- Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore      
- Rep. Ron Paul                                                  
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum                           
- Former Gov. Mitt Romney                                
- Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty                               
- Former Speaker Newt Gingrich                       
- Former Gov. Buddy Roemer                             
- Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain 
- Gay activist Fred Karger                                   
April 18, 2011 +
April 26, 2011 +
*April 13, 2011 +  ...May 3, 2011 +
April 11, 2011 +
March 21, 2011 +
*March 3, 2011
March 3, 2011 +
Jan. 12, 2011 +
July 18, 2010                        

A number of prominent prospects ruled out bids:

- Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani
- Former Gov. Sarah Palin
- Gov. Chris Christie
- Former Gov. George Pataki
- Gov. Mitch Daniels                                           
- Donald Trump                                                  
- Former Gov. Mike Huckabee                           
- Gov. Haley Barbour                                         
- Sen. John Thune                                             
- Rep. Mike Pence                                              
Oct. 11, 2011
Oct. 5, 2011 +
Oct. 4, 2011 +
April 20, 2011 / Aug. 26, 2011 +
May 22, 2011 +
May 16, 2011 +
May 14, 2011 +
April 25, 2011 +
Feb. 22, 2011 +
Jan. 27, 2011 +                   

The campaign started to take off in March 2011.  The number of visits to key states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, by potential candidates increased, and their PACs signed up many operatives, with staff announcements coming seemingly every day.

April was a very busy month.  President Obama started it off with his re-election announcement on April 4.  Mitt Romney announced his exploratory committee on April 11.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum announced a testing the waters committee on April 13.  Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore announced an exploratory committee on April 18.  Former Gov. Gary Johnson launched his full campaign on April 21 in New Hampshire; his visit also included a trip to an extreme skiing area.  Gov. Haley Barbour appeared to be on the verge of getting in before announcing on April 25 that he  would not be a candidate.  After some talk about whether Rep. Ron Paul or Sen. Rand Paul would run, Ron Paul quietly established a testing the waters committee in April, and then announced his exploratory committee on April 26 in Iowa.  Amb. Jon Huntsman finished his service in China and returned to the United States in time to make the White House Correspondents Association dinner on April 29.

In May the field clarified considerably.  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich announced on May 11.  Rep. Ron Paul announced his candidacy in Exeter, NH on May 13.  On May 14 former Gov. Mike Huckabee ruled out a run.  Donald Trump ended his flirtation on May 16.  Herman Cain announced at Centennial Park in Atlanta, GA on May 21.  Gov. Mitch Daniels announced he would not run in a statement issued in the wee hours of May 22.  Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced in Des Moines, IA on May 23.  Following Daniels' announcement, concerns about a lackluster field prompted a new round of speculation, with mentions of Rudy Guiliani, Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, and former Gov. George Pataki and outreach to Gov. Chris Christie. 

June saw more announcements.  Former Gov. Mitt Romney announced his candidacy on June 2 in Stratham, NH.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum announced on June 6 in Somerset, PA.  Rep. Michele Bachmann announced during the June 13 debate in New Hampshire that she had formed a presidential campaign committee, and she is formally announcing on June 27 in Waterloo, IA.  Former Gov. Jon Huntsman announced on June 21 at Liberty State Park, NJ with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.   

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter announced his seemingly quixotic candidacy at Whitmore Lake, MI on July 2, and former Gov. Buddy Roemer entered on July 21 from Hanover, NH after a long exploratory period.  After much speculaton, Gov. Rick Perry announced his candidacy in Charleston, SC on August 13, the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll.  The Straw Poll also produced the first casuality of the cycle as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty opted to exit the race the next day.

Up to mid-August 2011 Romney was seen as something of a frontrunner, and conventional wisdom among many pundits was that the race would boil down to Romney and an alternative to Romney.  Perry's entry shifted the dynamics of the race as he immediately became a top-tier candidate, seen by some as the frontrunner.  By the latter part of September, conventional wisdom and mainstream media presented the race as Romney vs. Perry, with the rest of the candidates designated as bit players.  However Perry ran into trouble with uneven debate performances.  A new round of buzz developed in late September around a possible campaign by Gov. Chris Christie; he was said to be "seriously considering" a run.  Christie put an end to the speculation at his October 4 press conference.  The next day former Gov. Sarah Palin issued a statement on her decision not to run.  The Republican field appears to be complete.

As noted, not all candidates are equal; the media divide the field into tiers and this shapes citizens' perception of the race.  Magazine covers illustrate this tier-ization.  For example, the cover of the June 3, 2011 issue of The Week magazine ("Waiting for Superman") showed Romney with Huntsman and Pawlenty smaller in the background.  At that point, those three were seen as top tier candidates.  More recently the Romney-Perry construct has taken hold; thus the Oct. 3, 2011 issue of Newsweek (It's On!") shows Romney and Perry.  "The rest of the field" candidates face the challenge of not being taken quite as seriously and getting less and less prominent coverage.

Launch: Details

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 [11 CFR 100.3], 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. 

Prospects who took this approach included Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.  Gingrich's newtexplore2012 website went up March 3, 2011; despite the name it was actually a testing the waters effort.  Gingrich did not file with the FEC to establish an exploratory committee; he did file with the IRS to form Newt Exploratory 2012, a 527 political committee based in Atlanta, on March 4.  The Rick Santorum Exploratory Committee, launched on April 13 was a testing the waters committee for the first three weeks.  Ron Paul also had a testing the waters committee before his exploratory committee.

Oftentimes 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.  See: FEC Candidate Registration Brochure.

Candidates typically will try to milk as much publicity out of the exploratory or candidate announcement as possible, for example going on an television program to announce the upcoming formation of an exploratory or campaign committee, i.e. an announcement of an announcement.  They 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 several stops in key states.

A hopeful may choose to formally launch his candidacy with a announcement speech.  In a symbolic location, 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.  

In 2008 cycle quite a few of the candidates decided to forego the expense and trouble of a formal announcement event and simply announced their campaigns in media appearances (for example Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) on "Imus in the Morning," Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) on CSPAN's "Washington Journal," and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) on WHO Radio's "Mickelson in the Morning") or via web video (for example Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) >).  Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) announced her exploratory committee via web video >, and left it at that; former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NY) likewise eschewed a big announcement.  

Many of the 2012 cycle's announcements have emphasized the key early states.  Former Gov. Gary Johnson, Rep. Ron Paul and former Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann all announced in New Hampshire.  (Johnson announced at the State Capitol and included extreme skiing on Mount Washington as part of his announcement trip.  Paul announced at Exeter Town Hall.  Romney launched his candidacy at the Bittersweet Farm in Stratham County.  Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced in Iowa, seen for him as a must-win state, with the Capitol visible in the background.  Rep. Michele Bachmann managed announcements in both Iowa and New Hampshire; she chose the June 13 New Hampshire debate for her first announcement and is planning an announcement event in Waterloo, the city where she was born, on June 27).  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich considered announcing at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, but ultimately announced via Twitter and Facebook and a video; he gave what amounted to an announcement speech a couple of days later at the Georgia Republican Party convention.  Of the field of candidates, Herman Cain had the biggest crowd at his announcement, a rally at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum announced in his home state of Pennsylvania, in Somerset County because that was where his grandfather settled in America after leaving Italy.  Former Gov. Jon Huntsman had the most dramatic setting; he announced from Liberty State Park, NJ with the Statue of Liberty in the background.  Gov. Rick Perry announced at Red State in Charleston, SC. 

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, an operative with one of the campaigns explained, is it only lasts for one news cycle.

Meanwhile, President Obama announced his re-election campaign on April 4, 2011 in an email and "the re-elect" is running full speed in Chicago.  One of his campaign's first tasks is to build a large warchest to discourage potential challengers and counter Republican attacks.  The campaign, headed by Jim Messina, has emphasized grassroots organizing.  Aside from fundraising >, Obama himself will try to remain above the fray and avoid getting into campaign mode for as long as possible.  However, in an election year, much of what he does has political overtones >

In his 1996 re-election campaign, for example, President Bill Clinton filed with the FEC to establish his primary committee on April 14, 1995, but did not name Peter Knight as his campaign manager until April 24, 1996.  President George W. Bush announced Ken Mehlman as his campaign manager on May 16, 2003, but did not really set out campaign themes until Feb. 2004 >.  The re-election campaign will have a very different character than Obama's 2008 campaign which was forged through the ups and downs of the primaries and the general election campaign.  One of the biggest differences is the need to coordinate and clear things with the White House. 

Finally there is always the possibility that a credible independent candidate could emerge.  In the last presidential cycle there was considerable speculation surrounding New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) was also mentioned, but nothing developed.  Bloomberg prompted some chatter early in this cycle despite his repeated denials of interest but that has ceased.  The group Americans Elect has been working to achieve ballot status in all 50 states; it plans to hold an online convention in June 2012.


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 2010 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; look for campaigns to put the best possible spin on their early fundraising numbers. 

Fundraising numbers are closely watched.  In the second quarter 2011 former Gov. Mitt Romney fared best among Republicans, reporting $18.25 million in primary contributions, but this amount appears to be well below his target, reported at $50 million.  The third quarter ended on September 30.

Although there is a voluntary system of partial public financing, most Republican candidates have not participated in this system.  (In the 2008 cycle only Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter participated).  Money alone is not enough.  At the end of 2007 the McCain campaign had spent $39.1 million and had cash on hand of $2.9 million and debts of $4.5 million; the Romney campaign had received $35 million in loans from the candidate, spent $87.6 million, and had cash on hand of $2.4 million, and the Huckabee campaign had spent $7.1 million and had $1.9 million in cash on hand.  Ability to chip in a few million, as Sen. Hillary Clinton did, or tens of millions of dollars, as former Gov. Mitt Romney did, is helpful but only goes so far.  Also of note, sitting Senators or congressman can start with a bit of a fundraising advantage for they have the ability to convert funds from their re-election committees to their presidential campaign committees.  Ultimately, however, a campaign is better off if it can create enough enthusiasm so that the money pours in as it did with then Sen. Obama's campaign or with the money bombs that helped Rep. Ron Paul's effort. (2008 | 2004(Dems) | 2000)

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.  Endorsements are a key part of establishing credibility.  In the first half of 1999, for example, then Gov. George W. Bush firmly established himself as the frontrunner by lining up far more endorsements of elected officials than any of the other contenders >.  In the 2008 cycle, endorsements were spread out among the candidates >.  Other ways to build credibility as a presidential candidate include major policy speeches and strong showings in various straw polls.  Campaigns highlight favorable media coverage, linking to it and forwarding it on as they seek to show growing support.  Candidates also seek to distinguish themselves from the other candidates in the field >.  Meanwhile, pundits and media will tier-ize the candidates; top tier candidates will receive ample coverage, while lower tier candidates may have to struggle for attention and inclusion.

Numerous forums and debates will occur throughout this period.  The South Carolina Republican Party held a debate on May 5, 2011 in Greenville, but only five candidates participated.   The first full-fledged debate occured on June 13 in Manchester, NH.  There are many "cattle shows" where some or many candidates speak to party, ideological or interest groups.  Events such as CPAC provide early organizing tests >.  The biggest event of the pre-primary period will likely be the Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll in Ames on Aug. 13, 2011 >.  Although the Iowa Straw Poll does not affect the selection of delegates, total spending around this event adds up to millions of dollars and candidates who fare poorly may bow out of the race or see funding dry up.  Another major happening was the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency V event with a straw poll in Orlando on Sept. 22-24, 2011.

To better mobilize supporters in key states campaigns open state headquarters.  State organizations line up support from activists and endorsements from county chairmen and elected officials.

The ad campaigns will also start.  In the 2008 cycle, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign went up with television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Michigan on Feb. 21, 2007, although Duncan Hunter's PAC ran some earlier as did longshot John Cox's campaign.  Bill Richardson's campaign became the first on the Democratic side to run TV ads, going up in Iowa and New Hampshire on April 23.  (2008 R, D, 2004, 2000)

By Fall 2011 media and public attention turns more and more to the four early states where a lucky few voters will finally have a say.  While a successful campaign will have been focusing most of its attention on these early states, it will not have ignored other states.  Endorsements by officials are a key building block of a state organization.  Behind the scenes, a campaign must also lay the groundwork for qualifying for primary ballots.  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.  In a vital, but little noticed part of the campaign, work goes on to line up full delegate slates, so that if the candidate actually survives the early contests, he or she will not be knocked out by default in later states. 

In the 2008 cycle, when the first contests were in early January, campaigning continued through the December and New Year's holidays.  Both parties have changed their rules so that in the 2012 cycle no contests should occur before February 1.

Exit Stage Left

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.  On the Republican side, the Iowa Straw Poll continues to serve as an important marker.  The Aug. 13, 2011 Iowa Straw Poll caused former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to exit the race.  Although Pawlenty did not give a speech on leaving, some candidates do.  Emotions are high, and a few tears may be shed, as the candidate, surrounded by family and staff, announces the end of his or her quest.  The speech and the Q and A that may follow, offers 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.

Out Before the First Votes Cast:

- Former Gov. Gary Johnson (to Libertarian)
- Herman Cain (suspended)
- Rep. Thaddeus McCotter
- Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty                                 
Dec. 28, 2011 +
Dec. 3, 2011 +
Sept. 22, 2011 +
Aug. 14, 2011 +                  

1. See Jonathan Martin.  "Reince Priebus meets with 2012ers' representatives."  Politico, March 10, 2011.  The article describes two-hour meeting RNC Chairman Priebus held with representatives from most of the presidential campaigns on March 7 (Daniels did not have a rep. there); according to the article the question of the debates was "the hottest topic of discussion" and RNC committeeman James Bopp is the point person on the subject.