With Nikki Haley’s entry into the GOP primary this week, the embryonic 2024 presidential campaign appeared to shift gears. Former South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador Strom Thurmond joins former President Donald Trump as the only major candidates to declare candidature.
Haley’s declaration, combined with the lack of one from President Joseph Biden and a number of Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, prompted me to consider: Do primary winners likely to enter the presidential campaign early or late?
The answer is contingent on who else is running. When there is no incumbent running in a primary, it is preferable to be early, however it is significantly less important when there is an incumbent running.
When is the best time to run?
The contemporary primary era began on the Democratic side in 1972 and on the Republican side in 1976. Hundreds of significant contenders have opted to run for president since then, or have created exploratory committees with the Federal Election Commission. I jotted down the first date for each of them to see if there was a pattern.
It turns out that the median date for candidates without an incumbent to enter a presidential primary has been March 16 the year before the general election. There has been a significant variance from year to year. Some years, the median candidate enters the race quite early (January 2007 for the 2008 cycle on both the Democratic and Republican sides), whereas other years, the median candidate enters much later (August 1991 for the 1992 cycle on the Democratic side).
There is no meaningful relationship between the timing of a field’s formation and the ultimate nominee’s success in the general election. Democrats, for example, won the presidency in 1992 and 2008, despite starting considerably later in 1992.
What appears to matter for winning a primary is when candidates enter the race in comparison to their opponents. Ten of the winning candidates in the 17 primaries since 1972 that did not contain an incumbent entered earlier than that year’s median candidate. Two of the victors were the middle-of-the-road candidates. Five candidates entered the race after the median candidate.
There were six who began running roughly one and a half months or more before the median candidate in that cycle. In the 1972 election cycle, Democrat George McGovern began nearly a full year before the median hopeful.
McGovern is the only major-party contender who received less than 5% of the vote in early national polls, while the polling leader received more than 20%. McGovern’s success explains why primary campaigns appear to begin so early in comparison to when voters really vote.
Getting in the public spotlight early, raising money, and forming an organisation are all critical components of winning a presidential campaign. That can be disastrous if you get too far behind.
Even candidates who appeared to have entered the contest late often entered much earlier. Trump’s official announcement in June 2015 became well-known for his ride down the escalator. Less well-known is that he formed an exploratory committee in March 2015, while he was already campaigning.
Of course, early entry into a presidential run is no guarantee of victory. Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew in the 1984 cycle and ex-Maryland Rep. John Delaney in the 2020 cycle both filed for the Democratic primary with the Federal Election Commission less than a year after the previous presidential election. Neither made it very far.
Still, getting in early is preferable to getting in late. After all, the winners who arrived late did not arrive that late. The most recent example was Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. He began his career less than three months after the average candidate.
In the 2020 election cycle, Biden was the other victorious contender who entered more than 15 days after the median candidate.
Both Biden and Reagan possessed traits that few people possessed. They’d already run for president and were well-known across the country, so they didn’t need time to create name recognition or a campaign and fundraising machinery.
What we’ve seen more frequently is a late-arriving “saviour” candidate riding in on a white horse – and failing. Consider former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson in the 2008 election cycle and then-Texas Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 election season. Both Republicans had a big debut and went on to win zero primaries. Democrat Mike Bloomberg experienced the same fate in the 2020 election season, despite winning American Samoa.
incumbents have an advantage
Meanwhile, incumbents have a lot greater ability to delay officially announcing their intention to run for another term.
Since 1976, the median date for presidents to organise an exploratory committee or announce their candidature has been April 30 of the year preceding the general election. That’s approximately a month and a half later than the average nonincumbent’s campaign begins.
Some presidents do leave office early. Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 reelection campaign began the moment he took office. (On Inauguration Day, he organised an exploratory committee.)
For incumbents, however, the normal rule is later. Reagan’s highly successful reelection campaign in 1984, for example, did not begin until October 1983. Similarly, President H.W. Bush launched his 1992 reelection campaign in October 1991.
It should come as no surprise that incumbents can afford to leave later. They rarely face serious opposition to their party’s candidature. They have widespread familiarity, and incumbents do not require the same amount of time to build out their campaign infrastructure in order to raise funds.
All of this appears to be consistent with what Biden is going through right now. According to some estimates, he will likely declare his reelection attempt in April.
Nevertheless, for Republicans wondering if it’s too soon to start campaigning, history is on their side. It is preferable to begin sooner rather than later, as you may fall too far behind to catch up.