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 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 the most common response to "the question" is for a presidential prospect to state that he or she is "focused on the midterms" or "too busy to think about it now," 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 regularly visit the key states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina;

-visit other key states in the nominating process;

-make the rounds at state party conventions and gatherings;

-speak to key constituency groups (for example, social conservatives, Tea Party activists...);

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

-write a book and prepare for a book tour.

Most of the potential candidates form leadership PACs to pursue their activities.  Several prospects establish state PACs in addition to their national PACs.  There are other vehicles besides PACs; for example, the 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 position in his or her career and in the public eye.  A lesser known figure or one who has not held public office for a number of years may have to do much more of this foundational work than a rock star prospect.  Then Sen. Barack Obama did relatively little campaign-type activity in 2005-06, yet because of his star quality he was seen as a top-tier candidate and ultimately emerged as the nominee.

A major objective 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.  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.  Grassroots support can be telling as to how a potential candidate will fare.  On their own initiative, activists take steps to promote their favored potential candidates, evidenced by various draft, support and fan club type websites.

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 the 2008 campaign. both parties moved to adopt rules to forestall a crush of early primaries.

The Democratic National Committee established a Change Commission which recommended changes (PDF) to its rules to improve its nominating process; the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee moved to effect those changes, and the full DNC approved them at its Fall meeting, Aug. 19-20, 2010 (>).  Democrats set out possible dates for the early contests: Iowa on February 6, New Hampshire on February 14, Nevada on February 18, and South Carolina on February 28, while the window for the rest of the states is to open on March 6.  There are incentives to encourage states to go later or in regional clusters.  Democrats also responded to the controversy that surrounded the unelected superdelegates in 2008 by diluting their numbers.

A rules change adopted by the 2008 Republican National Convention gave the Republican National Committee more flexibility to address the delegate selection process.  The RNC established a Temporary Delegate Selection Committee to "review the timing of the election, selection, allocation, or binding of delegate and alternate delegates to the Republican National Convention."  On Aug. 6, 2010 at its Summer meeting, the RNC adopted changes which allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to "begin their processes at any time on or after February 1," while other states can go starting the first Tuesday in March (>). 

Additionally, both parties undertook site selection processes to determine the cities to host their national conventions in 2012.  Republicans settled on Tampa-St. Petersburg while Democrats were considering four cities.

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 may occasionally run stories that have a presidential campaign angle or a paragraph here and there on presidential race implications.  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 the 2012 cycle the waters were not quite as crowded as they were in the 2008 cycle; then both parties' nominations were contested by large fields.

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 midterms or over the holidays with their families, but by the first few months of the year a decision on a presidential run will be imperative, although a formal announcement may be months off.

The View in 2009-10

The most frequently mentioned 2012 Republican presidential prospects were about evenly split between current and former elected officials.  They included Governors Haley Barbour (MS), Mitch Daniels (IN) and Tim Pawlenty (MN), U.S. Sen. John Thune (SD), and U.S. Reps. Mike Pence (IN) and Ron Paul (TX).  Former elected officials included Gov. Sarah Palin (AK), Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) now of Florida, Gov. Gary Johnson (NM), U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) now of No. Virginia, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) now of No. Virginia, and, just barely, Gov. George Pataki (NY).  Second tier prospects included Herman Cain and Fred Karger. 

On the Democratic side, President Obama kept up an active political effort in the Organizing for America organization housed at the Democratic National Committee; this is a base on which he is likely to build his 2012 re-election campaign.  There were no glimmerings of a credible primary challenge to Obama, although if the economy continues its weak performance and his popularity declines there is the possibility that one could occur.  In Sept. 2010 a Chicago dentist attracted a bit of attention by running an ad promoting Hillary Clinton in 2012, although this was isolated event.  There was speculation about the position of vice president.  Several commentators suggested that Obama move Hillary Clinton into the number two position in his second term or even sooner.